How Does Alcohol Affect my Training?

How Does Alcohol Affect my Training?

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WORDS Peter Miran

Everyone knows that alcohol is toxic. It offers no nutritional advantage to your health or well-being, nor can it aid or facilitate better bodily functions. That is common knowledge to all. We're also well aware of the many dangers attached to alcohol abuse; among them violence, dangerous driving, uninhibited behaviour and long-term damage to the organs. As a sociological subject none of this information is new or special at all. So I won’t harp on about the excessive consumption of alcohol.

We’re here to look at how alcohol can significantly interfere with the positive results that come from resistance training. But first, let’s quickly summarise what alcohol is and what the term represents, by definition.

Alcohol is a general term denoting a family of organic chemicals with common properties. Members of this family include ethanol, methanol, isopropanol and others. This summary discusses the physical, chemical and physiological aspects of the most commonly ingested of these: ethanol.

Alcohol (ethanol) is a clear, volatile liquid that burns (oxidises) easily. It has a slight, characteristic odour and is very soluble in water. Alcohol is an organic compound composed of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and of all the body’s systems it is the central nervous system that is most severely affected by alcohol. Impairment is proportional to the concentration of alcohol in the blood.

When ingested, alcohol passes from the stomach into the small intestine, where it is rapidly absorbed into the blood and distributed throughout the body. Because it is distributed so quickly and thoroughly the alcohol can affect the central nervous system even in small concentrations. In low concentrations, alcohol reduces inhibitions. As blood alcohol concentration increases, a person's response to stimuli decreases markedly, speech becomes slurred, and he or she becomes unsteady and has trouble walking. With very high concentrations greater than 0.35 grams/100 millilitres of blood (equivalent to 0.35 grams/210 litres of breath) a person can become comatose and die.

There is no refuting the argument that alcohol has no place in a serious athlete's life. After reading the above we're all aware physiologically of the 'why' here. Alcohol consumption is not something that any athlete should want to get involved with because it has many adverse effects on everything we need to gain muscle: hydration (muscles are made of water), recovery, anabolism, and the ability to focus are just a few examples.

I’m sure none of you would even consider drinking alcohol before or after a workout; but even having a few drinks a night or two before a workout can have negative impacts on performance and recovery. On the other hand, avoiding alcohol completely has many benefits in both the short- and long-term.

Considering the excessive calories in alcohol alone can give us an impression of the setback for many athletes, especially those on low-calorie diets. Excessive calories from alcohol or anything else calorie-dense is definitely not something we want as performance athletes or especially aesthetic athletes, where low body fat percentage is essential.

It's notable that all good things are good only in moderation and alcohol definitely fits that line of thinking. Alcohol in small doses has been proven to enhance relaxation and have some benefits to the heart by thinning the blood. Paul Cribb, world-renowned exercise scientist and research and developer to the great American sports nutrition company AST, has written about some benefits to drinking red wine nightly in very small amounts for improved fat loss. He recommends no more than half a glass of wine per evening (about 60ml).

Even in two to three glasses of alcohol there are usually more than 150 calories, and the adverse affects such as dehydration and minimised recovery start to set in. Drinking really is not a requirement of good health overall, despite evidence here and there supporting some minor benefits. Certainly, there are more negative effects than positive.

The cold hard truth is that being a non-drinker has far great benefits than being a regular consumer of alcohol. It has many negative effects on training progressions and can cause ill effects physiologically for days after it is consumed. These ill effects can take days to normalise as your body attempts to hydrate and cleanse the damage to organs, especially the liver, and the inevitable hormone and brain chemical dysfunction that it has incurred. By the time the regular drinker's body has normalised and created balance within its environment, the drinker has picked up another alcoholic beverage, resetting the unnecessary cycle of recovery the body goes through.

Let's take into consideration the most obvious adverse effect, dehydration. Around 24-48 hours after drinking excessively the kidneys are heavily impacted and therefore remaining hydrated as a result of that stress is very difficult. As the body's water goes to the kidneys to attempt to metabolise alcohol it is compromising the kidney's ability to do what is necessary and process other substances.

Muscles are fuelled by carbohydrates and muscle glycogen, and water plays a significant role in the retention of that fuel within the muscle cell, therefore hydration is of the essence. It takes the body some time after becoming dehydrated to rehydrate, and it isn't as simple as drinking water before bed after a heavy night of drinking.

Drinking water incrementally throughout the night of drinking alcohol will assist in helping reduce the chances of severe dehydration, but it certainly is not the answer to avoiding dehydration completely. By avoiding alcohol your body (and kidneys especially) are not placed under duress and your ability to continue processing these fuels for energy is not disrupted at all.

Cognitive Function
We must also consider the effect that alcohol has on the ability of the brain to function optimally. Many of us well equipped to perform compound movements at times take for granted the amount of motor activity required to perform even basic multi-jointed movement patterns. What we don't realise after doing so for many years is that - despite these functions becoming somewhat intuitive and second nature - they still require a deep mental focus and concentration to be executed with the kind of intensity and sharpness required.

Alcohol diminishes the function of the mind in many ways, especially due to the liver toxicity and how this precipitates into issues with brain chemistry that are heavily involved in maintaining proper and healthy mental functions. Being aware and sharp during training to enhance performance is an ability that is already affected through training lethargy and other environmental issues, let alone adding alcohol to the mix.

Alcohol intake, as mentioned earlier, slows down glycogen metabolism, hence the effect on muscular energy output. This also adversely affects the ability of the brain to function properly as the brain needs glycogen for energy to think efficiently. Training with more mind energy and free available glycogen improves our capacity to focus, execute movements more accurately and remain consciously aware of our body's positioning during a movement, simply because our mind is better fuelled than if it was affected by alcohol consumption.

Protein Synthesis
Staying anabolic, or in a state of protein synthesis (where cells are being recomposed and rebuilt), is impossible when you've been drinking. Drinking negatively impacts protein synthesis in a significant manner. Alcohol adversely affects the absorption and uptake of protein for its building block role in protein synthesis or cell regeneration. Without sufficient protein available, you will not be able to maximise your workouts.

The issue with reduced protein synthesis is that it affects the very process that is a precursor to muscle building (anabolism), and that process is none other than muscle recovery post-workout. You can't grow rapidly if you aren't recovering - simple!

Sleep & Heart Health
Over and above the direct side-effects of alcohol on a positive resistance-training result are the effects of alcohol on the heart. Despite alcohol having a noted effect on blood thinning and vasodilation (enlarging of the blood vessels), the adverse effects of alcohol on the heart are significant. A regression in cardiovascular output can impede recovery between sets, or the ability to grind through a higher-repetition workout with the endurance that it requires.

Alcohol also has an effect on the dopamine neurotransmitters and shuts off the supply of dopamine when heavily intoxicated. The issue with this is that dopamine, despite being shut off during intoxication, is still being produced. As alcohol starts to dissipate and waste from the system, dopamine begins to surge again, however, due to its suppression it has higher amounts being stimulated, causing a dopamine surge and an adrenalin high. For this reason, many who regularly become intoxicated by alcohol, once it has worn off, will have issues waking up and falling back to sleep, somewhat affecting REM sleep and overall sleep patterns.

Alcohol and training don't belong in the same sentence. Alcohol will affect the ability of a bodybuilder to improve muscle volume and aesthetics, and will impede your strength and conditioning. Performance inevitably takes a hit as a result also. Lack of hydration and poor recovery negatively impacts your ability to perform at your best in terms of strength and endurance.

Performance is reduced, recovery impaired, focus affected and energy is seeped. These are all minimal factors that collectively become highly damaging to the athlete’s ability to move towards their goals when regularly consuming alcohol within a training program that has set intentions. MMH

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