Alcohol and sports performance

Alcohol has been a contentious topic between athletes, coaches, managers and scientists for decades. As with most things in life the consensus seems to be that alcohol fits in with the “everything in moderation nothing to excess” mantra.

The best argument to not overdoing it comers out of Finland (the land of world record vodka consumption ‘cause there is little else to do all winter in the dark). This study looked at the effect of alcohol consumption at party levels on performance in elite athletes.

They took a group of very high caliber athletes (the Finns are good at this; when they say elite they mean elite) and tested them in a standardized endurance test once per week for a few weeks. Based on performance, they divided them into two equal groups.

The control group kept on going as before for another four weeks with the performance tests. The intervention group went out and partied hard (enough to score “very intoxicated”, so 3+ non-American beers for an average male) and continued to do the performance tests along with the first group.

The first group continued to improve while the “party-group” dropped significantly in performance and took on average four weeks to return to their original performance level. By which time the control group was showered and had gone home.

That’s the most conclusive proof of easing off on serious alcohol consumption for competitive athletes. Moderation though, shows no conclusive adverse effects. The biggest area affected by alcohol is the liver; primarily reduced efficiency in detoxifying the blood post workouts and reduced efficiency in glycogen synthesis.

Going back to moderation, years back a Kiwi pro triathlete stopped his beloved beer(s)-a-day habit cold turkey and his performance nose dived for a year until he added beer back into his diet.

There is no denying the nutritional contributions found in beer and wine, and that may help an athlete in many ways. Hard alcohol is not as forgiving due to the very high alcohol content and has little nutritive value.

Another thought regarding alcohol; some athletes will benefit psychologically from a beer or two as it helps them relax before a competition and sleep well. Drinking enough to pass out is not what we’re looking for here, just enough to relax.


Alan Carlsson
Engineered Athlete Services


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