How Does Alcohol Affect My Training? A Holiday Game Plan for Athletes

By Gabrielle Kassel | 12. November 2019


‘Tis the season of holiday parties and the indulgences they present—specifically the alcoholic kind. From wine at Thanksgiving dinner to Christmas eggnog to champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, the holiday season is full of celebratory beverages. But just like too many Chanukah latkes will start to weigh you down, too many drinks during the holidays will affect your fitness and training.

Hear us out, Mudder Nation. We know you’re a finisher-beer loving tribe, but alcohol does to your fitness levels what mud does to runners: Slows ‘em way down. 

“Decades of research show that the risks of drinking alcohol far outweigh the benefits, especially for athletes,” says Lesley Bell, NASM-CPT, a personal trainer and brain health coach at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “If you’re serious about your sport, or are working towards a certain fitness goals, you’d benefit from holding off on drinking,” she says. 

That’s why more than a handful of OCR Headband Wearers have chosen to sideline the sauce until after event day. Mudder Alex Baldwin, 27, is one of them. When he started training for his first Tough Mudder, he’d indulge in a beer or two. But after one rough morning workout, he decided to banish the brewskies until after crossing the finish line. “Almost right away, my body felt better and was able to train harder,” he says. “Mentally, I felt sharper and my attitude improved. I was more excited to work out in the mornings, leading to more effective workouts.” 

His experience is not the exception, Mud Lovers. So, does being a Mudder-in-Training mean ditching booze entirely? In an ideal world, yes, Bell says. But that’s not realistic for most of us, especially during the holidays. That’s why we asked the experts exactly how alcohol can affect your training—plus suggest a game plan for how you can still enjoy a holiday cocktail or two without derailing your fitness goals.

Muscle Recovery Takes A Back Seat When You Booze

“I hate to say it, but drinking alcohol post-workout will not facilitate muscle repair,” Bell says. “On the contrary, it does the opposite.” When you exercise you’re creating tiny little micro-tears in your muscles that your body repairs so that your muscles can grow back mightier. But the second you take a sip, your body completely pauses muscle repair in order to prioritize metabolizing the alcohol in your system, according to research published in PLOS One journal. 

Why is that? Welp, because your body sees alcohol as a toxin and therefore tries to flush it from the system. Data suggests it takes about two hours for your body to metabolize each serving of alcohol you drink. (FYI, one serving = 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor). That means if you chug two pints of beer, you’re body isn’t repairing your torn-up muscles for four full hours. The result, according to the PLOS One study, is “impaired recovery and/or subsequent performance.”

Plus, drinking alcohol causes your risk of injury to go way up. “Athletes who drink two or more times per week are twice as likely to get injured,” Bell adds. Research on the topic suggest this is due to something called the “hangover effect of alcohol consumption,” which has been shown to reduce athletic performance by 11.4%. Pretty hard to train for an event when you’re sidelined with an injury, Mudders!

Your Holiday Game Plan: Drink In Moderation

Dietary guidelines define moderation as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. But, how you quantify moderation is up to you, Mudder Nation. For instance, during the holidays when the eggnog is within reach, you might imbibe a little more, but leading up to event day you might imbibe a little less. Just remember, “Too much alcohol, especially in athletes, ultimately reduces strength and performance,” Bell says. 

Alcohol Increases Your Risk Of Being Dehydrated

One member of Mudder Nation, Cassie Gonzalez, 27, who recently completed Tough Mudder SoCal, has never been a big drinker, so she didn’t feel a need to cut back even further on her alcohol intake leading up to the big event. But she says, “I definitely did not drink the night before because the last thing I wanted was to be dehydrated running in the Lake Elsinore heat.” 

Smart move: According to Bell, exercise and alcohol can both cause you to lose fluids (and electrolytes) much faster than usual, making them as deadly a combo as OCR power couple Lindsey and Ryan Atkins.

“Exercise is dehydrating. Drinking is dehydrating. If you don’t drink enough water, you can become dehydrated very quickly,” Bell says. Symptoms of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, and lightheadedness, which aren’t ideal if you’re trying to crush the course. 

Your Holiday Game Plan: Keep A 1:1 Ratio

“Always try to drink at least one 8-ounce glass of water for every drink you have to reduce the risk of dehydration,” Bell says. If you’re drinking after a workout, you might add a packet of Pedialyte to your drink which will help replenish some of your electrolytes. “The faster you are able to replace your body’s vitamins and minerals, the better,” she says. 

Drinking Is Empty, Wasted Calories

“After seeing the photos from my first Tough Mudder event, I knew I wanted to look better for the course photographers at my next event,” says OCR enthusiast Seth Buchwalter. “I could easily tighten up my body by limiting my alcohol intake. You know, kill those wasted calories and you're basically guaranteed to look better.” Fast forward to today: Seth is competitive in the obstacle course race space, and sporting a different kind of six pack.

Registered dietitian and exercise physiologist Jim White, RDN, ACSM, Owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, confirms that even if you opt for a lower-cal drink, alcohol is packed with empty calories. Meaning, unlike food, which your body can break down for nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, alcohol doesn’t give your body anything as far as nutrients are concerned. Instead, you should be correctly fueling your body with what it needs to perform at its best.tead of a healthy salad. We’re Team Moderation over here at TMHQ, but as White says, all those beer & burgers runs can add up! 

Your Holiday Game Plan: Chew Before You Chug

“Eating before drinking will make a large difference,” White says. Particularly, have a snack with protein and fat to help promote muscle recovery before you drink, and to slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream once you start, he suggests. Plus, being full before you have a drink will make it less tempting to start noshing on holiday treats. Don’t worry, no fancy food-prep required here: a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain or plate with steak and potatoes will do fine. 

Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based fitness and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 trainer. When she's not lifting heavy sh*t, playing rugby, or getting downright dirty, she can be found reading memoirs and guzzling cold brew.