What I Do: I rarely drink alcohol.
The Science Behind It: Let me start with a short(ish) disclaimer here: If drinking alcohol helped climbing or athletic performance, I might drink alcohol every night, and I’m sure I’d drink more often than I do now. Point being – I have nothing personal against alcohol or those who drink it. The purpose of this blog isn’t to attack your drinking habits or to make you feel defensive about your choices, so please don’t take it that way. I honestly don’t care whether you get wasted every night or enjoy a few après-climbing drinks regularly, so long as you don’t drive drunk or otherwise cause alcohol-related harm to others. I have a libertarian attitude about this subject; I believe it’s a matter of individual choice and priorities, just like many options in life.
The point of this blog is to be informative. I do think that people who are interested in performing at peak levels should make every effort to educate themselves about what they put into their bodies, since nutrition plays such an enormous and inextricable role in how our bodies function. Having a blind eye toward the impact that drinking can have on athletic performance or trying to pretend that it doesn’t detract from your athletic potential demonstrates a remarkable lack of awareness at best and a deliberate self-deception at worst.
To be blunt: I really don’t care if you drink alcohol all day every day – again, so long as you don’t cause harm to those around you. It’s your choice. But if you’re interested in pushing your body to its limits as an athlete, you should at least know and understand the sacrifice you’re choosing to make by consuming alcohol, especially if you consume it in excess. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as more than four drinks in a sitting for women and more than five for men; heavy drinking is an average of more than one drink daily for women and more than two drinks daily for men).
Whew. Now that that’s over with, I’m going to list 10 reasons why climbers (and other athletes) interested in peak performance might want to consider limiting their alcohol intake. Please note that these are only some of the athletic-performance-related issues associated with alcohol use; while some of them do relate to general health issues as well, I’m not going to list all of the negative long-term health issues associated with overconsumption of alcohol. That’s beyond the scope of this blog. So without further ado (finally, right?), here are 10 performance-related reasons why I rarely drink alcohol anymore (and never more than two or three drinks in one sitting):
1. Alcohol consumption increases muscle damage when consumed after workouts. Drinking 1 gram of alcohol per kilogram of body weight after exercising resulted in a greater loss of muscle-damage-related power, according to a study in the March 2010 “European Journal of Applied Physiology.” However, drinking .5 gram of alcohol per kilogram of body weight had no significant impact on muscle damage.
2. Drinking alcohol increases your muscles’ recovery time after a workout, as indicated by the University of Notre Dame’s Office of Alcohol and Drug Education (OADE).
3. Alcohol impairs hand-eye coordination and slows reaction times, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Current Comment on Alcohol and Athletic Performance.
4. Drinking alcohol can cause hormone imbalances. Of particular interest to athletes is alcohol’s potential to decrease testosterone levels, as noted by the UC San Diego Athletic Performance Nutrition Bulletin: Alcohol and Athletic Performance.
5. Alcohol consumption can result in weight gain and increased body fat.
6. Alcohol disrupts your body’s natural sleep cycle. Sleep deprivation delays muscle recovery, promotes hormone imbalances and reduces your brain’s ability to learn new information, notes OADE.
7. Diuretic effect. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because alcohol’s a liquid, it’s not dehydrating. It is. Learn more by reading “Does Beer Make You Pee More?” and Dehydration and Athletic Performance: The Link.
8. Drinking alcohol may increase your risk of muscle cramps. Since excessive alcohol consumption lengthens your muscles’ recovery time and causes more muscle damage, it also has the potential to predispose you to muscle cramps. For more on this, read Beer Consumption and Muscle Cramps.
9. Alcohol consumption can negatively impact your performance for up to five days, notes the OADE, in part by impairing your brain’s ability to learn.
10. Long-term alcohol abuse can cause chronic muscle damage and weakness, inhibit nutrient absorption and lead to malnutrition, as well as potentially causing an array of additional health problems, according to ASCM.
To learn more about this subject matter, start with How Drinking Alcohol Can Impact Your Rock Climbing Performance. More in-depth information about alcohol, sports and health can be found in the books listed to the right of this blog entry.