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In principle, not at all: while physical activity is recommended for good health, most health professionals would suggest staying away from regular alcohol consumption and the unhealthy behaviours that often go hand in hand with it.
Who among us dedicated sports enthusiasts has never said the day after a few too many drinks, "I have to go work this off"? Think back to that run, with your head all fuzzy and your body struggling to keep up. Or that football match, where it felt like you were moving in slow motion? In the moment, it may seem like a good idea to fight a hangover with a bit of exercise. But in fact, it's not. To start, let's take a look at what drinking really does to you. Not so much the fun, make-you-want-to-dance-on-the-table effects, but the actual consequences of alcohol on the body…
Picture this: you leave work, a bit tired from your day, and have a glass or two without anything to eat. Your head starts to spin, your legs get heavy and you start talking more. You may even start waxing philosophical! Or, that's what you think anyway. But what's actually happening when you drink alcohol? Have a few too many drinks, and the alcohol will make you uninhibited and euphoric - at least in the short term - due to the production of dopamine, which is often known as the "feel-good hormone". While the short-term effects of alcohol may be pleasant, what follows is generally less so, as you're likely aware of: you may experience a loss of balance and coordination, nausea etc. Know that feeling where everything seems to be spinning when you lie down? How many times have you said, "OK, that's it, I'm never drinking again, ever...”?
Because alcohol is a diuretic (it causes you to urinate more), it leaves you dehydrated. Drinking alcohol makes you have to visit the loo more than usual (or more than with non-alcoholic drinks), and the result is dehydration as your body loses its stored water. This is why you're left with a headache and dry mouth the next day. Usually, and unless you're one of those who believe in the “hair of the dog that bit you” approach, the best thing to do for a hangover is to drink a lot of water (or herbal tea, or possibly soup if you really went overboard) to ease your aching head and rehydrate your body.
Can you see where I'm going with this when it comes to sports activities and alcohol? The state of dehydration caused by alcohol is not exactly ideal when you know that you need to stay properly hydrated when doing sport (because exercise also leads to water loss).
Let's look at things in chronological order to see if sport and alcohol are ever a good mix. First, let's consider doing a sports activity after having had a drink or two… Yoann Morvan, a doctor of sports medicine, was game for answering our questions. He doesn't see much benefit to doing sport after putting one or more cold ones away. “Alcohol causes problems with coordination, along with poor balance and effort management”, says Yoann. “After drinking, you aren't able to manage your body in the space around you, and your movements are slower and less precise. The dehydrating effect of alcohol will make you tired faster, and you'll have less strength in your muscles. Your performance will be much less intense. Studies have shown that with just one glass of alcohol, an athlete's performance diminishes.”
Alcohol also has an anxiety-reducing effect, which some might view as a positive thing ahead of a competition. “When you have a drink, it's true that it relaxes you”, says Yoann. “But reducing stress when you're doing sport isn't necessarily a good thing - it plays an important role in performance and stimulates the body. Stress releases hormones that prepare you for certain situations. Drinking interferes with this natural mechanism. When you lower your stress, you also lose some of your reflexes and physical abilities. During a match, for example, you'll have a slower reaction time and won't be able to understand what's happening as quickly or anticipate other players' actions. Your understanding of the environment will be altered, plus your chance of injury goes up: when you're less able to manage your environment and your body, you may move wrong, miscalculate your movements or even just fall.”
So if doing sport after drinking isn't such a great idea, what about getting in a workout the next day to get rid of it faster? For those who feel like this leaves them with a clear conscience, you might want to think again! Going out for a run or playing in a match with a hangover could do you more harm than good. “Pushing your body after you've been drinking is not a good idea”, says Yoann. “When you still have alcohol in your bloodstream and haven't fully recovered your reflexes, it's better to wait a few hours, drink some water, eat and rest before putting your body under the stress of doing sport. Exercising when you're still dehydrated can be risky, leaving you tired or even setting you up for an injury. After a big night out, the next day you should spend the morning and afternoon resting and do some physical activity in the evening, but without pushing too hard.” So don't feel guilty about that lie-in after a late night - it's what the doctor calls for. But if you do want to get moving, make it late in the day and go easy so your body has some time to recover.
Because drinking alcohol lowers hydration levels, it doesn't do anything to support your muscle function. If anything, quite the opposite is true! Since drinking hinders your reflexes and isn't a good match for team sports or those requiring precision, perhaps you're wondering if it might fare better when it comes to endurance sports? Not really. These disciplines require sustained effort from your muscles, and they'll start to feel fatigued even faster than if you were performing in a fasted state. And when you're poorly hydrated, your risk of injury, sprains, tendinitis and other aches and pains goes up.
Another effect of alcohol: it lowers your blood sugar level. “Because alcohol interferes with and reduces the release of glucose by the liver into the blood, it increases the risk of hypoglycaemia”, says Yoann. Although alcohol contains sugar in different quantities depending on the drink (mojito, caipirinha etc.), the alcohol molecules disrupt sugar production in the liver - a process called glycogenesis - as well as the sugar stored in the muscles, which is essential for proper functioning. “You shouldn't drink alcohol thinking it will provide sugar. It actually disrupts the sugar production and storage process in the body. If you drink before going for a run, for example, you may end up tired or feeling ill halfway through”. So don't go thinking you can have an alcoholic drink to power your next 20 km run: it certainly won't give you a leg up and may even bring you down!
There's one last possibility that we haven't yet looked at that could give us some wiggle room: the famous post-exercise recovery beer, often mentioned to celebrate an accomplishment (usually with a group)… Is this a winning combination? Alas, no, my fellow sports enthusiasts. Once again, Yoann breaks down those old clichés and recommends finding a healthier post-sport option! “When you do sport, your muscles are subject to microtears. As you get fitter, they heal, become more resistant and react better to physical effort. But for that to happen, you need to give yourself some recovery time to rest and rehydrate. Drinking alcohol after sport is not really a great idea, because as we mentioned before, alcohol will dehydrate you and limit your ability to recover, especially with regard to glycogen production, at exactly the moment when you need it most.” And as you probably realise, beer is indeed an alcoholic beverage. Brewer's yeast, which is high in protein and full of vitamins, may be healthy, but beer alone will not help you recover. “Beer, like other alcohols, has a diuretic effect and will cause you to lose water and trace elements. Drinking alcohol after doing sport reduces the benefit of your effort and disrupts muscle recovery.”
Whether before, during or after, drinking and sport do not go well together, and alcohol can even reduce the benefits you get from exercising. While there's nothing wrong with enjoying a cold beer or glass of wine once in a while, just time it so it won't interfere with your training. Your body will thank you!