Published: 16 January 2020
TRAINING OR PLAYING sports with a headache from the night before is no fun, but alcohol can affect more than just your motivation.
When you’ve been drinking, everything from your reaction times to your muscle development can suffer, and the effects can last from anywhere from a few hours up to three full days.
For Tipperary hurler and All-Ireland medal-holder Kieran Bergin, cutting down on alcohol was one of the big changes he made to kickstart his return to inter-county GAA back in 2013, after returning from a seven-year stint in the US.
“When I came home I became more focused, went to college. Maybe I was just maturing but I changed,” he told The42.ie.
“I went from drinking pretty much every weekend and socialising to drinking maybe seven or eight times a year. It was a massive transformation for me.”
Kieran’s not alone in seeing an improvement in sports performance after reducing his alcohol intake. If you’re drinking regularly, your body can be affected in a variety of ways that you may not be aware of.
1. Your endurance and energy levels are lower
During exercise, your body is fuelled by the essential blood sugar produced by the liver when it releases glucose into the blood stream. Drinking alcohol reduces your liver’s ability to produce these all-importance sugars, meaning you’re basically running on empty.
Alcohol consumption can also reduce the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a key energy source for muscle cells, required for the biochemical reactions involved in any muscle contraction. The more your muscles move, the more ATP that’s consumed, and the more that’s needed to fuel your workout.
2. Your cardio performance drops
Aerobic exercise, or cardio, requires the body to pump oxygenated blood to the heart to deliver oxygen to muscles. When you’ve been drinking, that process is slowed, and so too are your blood sugar levels, meaning your muscles can’t access the quick energy they need.
3. Your quality of sleep is impacted
Getting a good night’s rest is vital for optimum sports performance, and when you drink alcohol your ability to get proper shut-eye plummets. Yes, you might drift off more easily, but research shows that alcohol reduces the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, meaning you’ll wake up feeling drowsy and low in energy the next day. Alcohol’s effect on sleep can also inhibit your body’s production of human growth hormone (HGH), which is required for muscle building and repair.
4. Dehydration means your performance is reduced
Alcohol is a natural diuretic – in layman’s terms, it makes you pee more – which is why you generally wake up gasping of thirst when you’re hungover. Dehydration can affect everything from your energy, to your endurance, to your body’s core temperature, which is all bad news if you have a big game or a workout planned.
When you’re dehydrated, your body’s stocks of electrolytes like magnesium, potassium and calcium are depleted. These are vitally important to the maintenance of fluid balance, muscle action and muscle coordination. Water-soluble vitamins like B6, B12 and Vitamin C are all depleted by dehydration too, making you more prone to illness and reducing your body’s ability to function at its best.
5. You’re more likely to cramp up during your workout
If you’ve ever had your match day chances scuppered by a cramped-up calf, or had to stop mid-deadlift due to glute pain, you’ll know how annoying muscle cramps can be. Drinking alcohol in the 24 hour period before training can contribute to a build-up of lactic acid, putting you at increased risk of cramping and muscle fatigue.
6. Your reaction times are slower
Alcohol’s sedative effects can mean bad things for your performance and reaction times for up to 72 hours after drinking. Poorer hand-eye coordination and slower response times might be okay if you’re working out alone, but not if your teammates are relying on you.
7. You’re more at risk of complications from injuries
Drinking alcohol increases blood flow and swelling around soft tissue injuries like sprains, bruises and cuts, which slows down healing time. Plus, alcohol’s ability to mask pain means you’re less likely to treat an injury with care, which could lead to further damage.
Even if you don’t have a specific injury, drinking before or after exercise could greatly affect your body’s ability to repair and recover, as alcohol can reduce testosterone, which is important for muscle development.
Keen to reduce your alcohol intake on a night out?
Whether it’s a few drinks after work or a night out with your team, there are ways to cut down on how much you drink.
- Take a few minutes before you head out to plan how much you’ll be drinking and what your limit is. The simple act of thinking ahead could stop you heading to the bar for that last drink.
- Start your night with water or a soft drink, so that your thirst is quenched. Space out each alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic one.
- Opt to be the designated driver. If you’re heading out with a big group, volunteer to drive everyone home at the end of the evening, giving you a reason not to drink.
- Avoid getting into rounds. When you’re in a round, you’re drinking at the pace of the group, not at your own pace, so stick to your own drinks tab where possible.