Mind & Body

Here's Why You Should Rethink That Post-Workout Beer

From the free beer at the end of a marathon to biking brewery tours to beers marketed specifically for athletes, alcohol and athletics make a surprisingly cozy couple. So this may come as a bit of a shock: Alcohol is bad for athletes, especially right after a workout. Need a reason? We've got plenty.

Bubbles and Brawn

After a hard workout, your muscles are left damaged. Microscopic tears in the muscle tissue cause inflammation and soreness — that's not due to lactic acid, by the way. Exercise also depletes your levels of glycogen (the sugary chemical your muscles use as fuel) along with your fluids and electrolytes. If the exercise was intense enough, it could take weeks for your body to repair itself fully. And of course, that repair is what will help you work even harder next time.

It seems reasonable to do all you can to help yourself heal and get back out there — proper rest, hydration, nutrition, all that. Alcohol, however, does the opposite of what a recovering athlete is looking for. You want muscle repair? A 2014 study showed that alcohol slows down the muscle repair process, even when you drink a protein shake with it. What about refueling your muscles? A 2003 study suggested that alcohol might deplete glycogen restoration by keeping your body from taking in carbs properly.

And of course, everyone knows the toll alcohol can take on your hydration levels. Dehydration lowers the volume of blood circulating in your body, which makes your heart work harder. A widely cited study from 1997 showed that when people exercised, then drank a beverage containing 4 percent alcohol (about the level of your typical mass-marketed pilsner) their blood and plasma volume didn't rise much at all, even though they were peeing more with every drink. However, alcohol didn't make the dehydration worse; it just didn't help the way other fluids would. In fact, a 2015 study showed that when people drank a bomber's worth of beer along with as much water as they wanted post-workout, their hydration levels matched that of exercisers who had just had water.

It should be noted that this is all alcohol, not just beer. Whether wine is your drink of choice or you like a scotch on the rocks, if it contains alcohol, it can impede your recovery and make your next workout worse.

What to Drink Instead

We're not saying you can't have a celebratory beer after that marathon or century or even your average Wednesday. What we are saying is that if recovery is your goal, you've got to go light on the booze. If you really crave those bitter bubbles after an intense workout, here's a strange suggestion: nonalcoholic beer.

For a study published in 2011, researchers randomly assigned men to drink two to three pints a day of either nonalcoholic beer or a nonalcoholic placebo (that tasted the same) while they trained for a marathon, starting three weeks before the event and continuing for two weeks following. The men drinking the nonalcoholic beer reported fewer illnesses, less inflammation, and lower counts of white blood cells than the placebo group, showing that their immune systems weren't as compromised — a common problem after a grueling race. That could be because nonalcoholic beer is chock-full of health-boosting polyphenols, just like regular beer is. It just doesn't happen to cause the harm of alcohol.

Of course, you could also skip the booze entirely and go the more orthodox route: Sports drinks are formulated to replenish both the electrolytes you lose through your sweat and the sugars your muscles burn through. Many athletes also swear by chocolate milk as a recovery drink for its combo of carbs and protein. But the science says what you probably suspected all along: When you drink after a workout, you recover despite the booze, not because of it.

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For more on how to fuel your body for endurance, check out "The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition: A Cutting-Edge Plan to Fuel Your Body Beyond the Wall" by Matt Fitzgerald. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

You Are Running Wrong

Written by Ashley Hamer July 16, 2018

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