Introduction

As you are probably well aware, the consumption of alcohol and exercise performance really doesn’t go hand in hand. This opening sentence is neither rocket science nor a fascinating discovery, but it does set the scene with regards to the content of this article. Without trying to generalise and stereotype an entire readership, I’m almost certain the vast majority of you reading this have first hand experience with regards to the effects of alcohol, on more than one occasion!

So what are the effects of alcohol on exercise performance? Have you ever taken a moment to consider how that bottle of Corona or Jack Daniels and Coke is going to affect your ability to perform in your chosen activity at an optimal level? If you’re anything like me, then the effects of alcohol on exercise performance is a serious distraction and amounts to the following: skipped training sessions, negative attitudes towards training and lacklustre performances for the several days following alcohol consumption.

Although the effects of alcohol as a whole are commonly known, the effects of alcohol with specific reference to exercise performance are much less so. Although the overall findings, presented throughout this article, are unlikely to cause shock, some of their specific applications to exercise performance might make you think twice before reaching for that bottle of wine.

The Effects Of Alcohol On Exercise Performance

Alcohol, or more specifically Ethanol, has the potential to bring about a number of implications that can ultimately impact upon an exercise performance. It is hypothesised that acute alcohol intake may impair the following aspects of exercise: endurance, due to its effects on metabolic, cardiovascular and thermoregulatory function, and skilled tasks, due to its effects on reaction time, fine motor control, levels of arousal and overall judgement (Shirreffs and Maughan, 2006).

Furthermore, Ethanol has also been shown to significantly impact upon various physiological aspects of an individual, including glycogen metabolism, hydration and thermoregulatory function. These in turn can ultimately play a part in achieving optimal performance levels. Each physiological factor will now be contemplated independently, including specific research investigations considering any potential cause and effect relationship with paired with Ethanol.

Muscle Glycogen Storage

In 2003, Burke et al. undertook a research investigation into the effects of Ethanol intake on the ability of an individual to replenish muscle glycogen storage following a prolonged cycling bout. During this investigation, participants performed the test on three separate occasions, each time receiving a different diet following exercise completion.

The diets were as follows: a high carbohydrate diet with no alcohol, a reduced carbohydrate diet with the inclusion of alcohol and a high carbohydrate diet with the inclusion of alcohol. Results indicated significant reductions in the ability to replenish muscle glycogen stores during the reduced carbohydrate diet with the inclusion of alcohol.

At both eight hours and sixteen hours post exercise, reductions of 50 per cent and 16 per cent were noted respectively. There were no significant differences noted between the two high carbohydrate diet variations, however.

The importance of muscle glycogen resynthesis following an intense bout of exercise is one that simply cannot be overlooked or omitted and is considered one of the key goals of any athlete. Ultimately, a successful replenishment allows for a full restoration and repair process. Any deviation away from this is likely to serious hamper subsequent exercise performances.

Although it could be argued that alcohol is not problematic provided that you obtain sufficiently high carbohydrates, as demonstrated within the above research investigation, this has been strongly challenged. Shirrefs and Maughan (2006) argued that individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol during the all important recovery period are also likely to have a reduced carbohydrate intake. The rationale behind this hypothesis is that these same individuals will also demonstrate an inability to follow proper eating guidelines.

Hydration Levels

As previously highlighted, Ethanol has also been demonstrated to significantly impact upon the hydration levels of an individual. These findings were echoed by Eggleton (1942) who concluded that for each gram of Ethanol ingested, a further 10ml excess urine production and fluid would be produced by any given individual.

Remaining hydrated before, during and after exercise performance is considered a key variable with regards to achieving an optimal environment in which you can thrive.

Thermoregulatory Functions

Finally, the thermoregulatory functions of an individual can also be considered. Unsurprisingly, they are also impaired following the consumption of Ethanol.

During a research investigation in which Ethanol was ingested prior to a three hour period of prolonged exercise, undertaken within a cold climate, results indicated that the Ethanol consumption group demonstrated significantly enhanced heat loss in comparison to the control group (Graham, 1981).

Final Word

The purpose of this article was to contemplate the effects of alcohol on exercise performance. Through the research provided, it is evident that Ethanol can seriously impact upon various physiological aspects of an individual, including but not limited to: muscle glycogen replenishment, hydration and thermoregulatory function. These all affect an individual’s ability to both perform optimally in their given activity and recover fully following an intense exercise performance.

As with all research, it should always be taken at face value. This is particularly true with regards to this topic of interest. The major issue with contemplating the effects of alcohol on exercise performance is that it is ethically unlawful. As a result, much of the research is simply non existent or provided in a watered down format. Can you imagine the potential for disaster by bringing about a state of full intoxication in a group of individuals and then requesting that they complete a sporting task? The risks far outweigh the potential gains.

So what does this mean? Ultimately, the research findings, such as those highlighted above, may not apply to real life settings. Can the findings of an investigation that utilises controlled Ethanol release be compared to an individual who goes out binge drinking the night before a big sporting event? The answer, although somewhat debatable, is probably no.

Due to the various research and investigative flaws, it’s almost impossible to draw any concrete conclusions regarding the effect of alcohol on exercise performance – especially when seeking scientific research to support your claim.

Having said that, in a world where common sense rarely prevails, when applied to this very topic of conversation you can arrive at a sensible conclusion; that although alcohol may or may not impair exercise performance at certain amounts, it certainly doesn’t enhance it – and this is the important take home message.

With all this in mind, any individual who is serious about their exercise performance and ability to perform optimally should consider when they choose to consume alcohol during the week.