Athletes and Alcohol: Does Drinking Impact Performance?

Hello from Sonoma! It’s been another great weekend in wine country, where I’ve been busy with the race, some R&R, delicious Paleo eating (it’s hard to go wrong when you’re surrounded by such an abundance of local produce and foodie culture!) and, of course, a little bit of indulgence in the form of some good, old fashioned wine tasting.


What? Wine?  For a Paleo enthusiast?  And one who’s an endurance athlete, no less?


No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. One of my main goals as a Paleo nutrition coach is to create plans for clients that can be followed for the long run. This includes factoring in food and drink for special occasions, teaching them how to balance out their macros and plan accordingly so that physiologically, as well as emotionally, they can learn to partake of indulgences without going off the rails.


Since I’ve always insisted on practicing what I preach, I, too, like to enjoy a glass of wine on occasion.  But the question remains: can alcohol hurt those of us who engage in regular endurance training more than those who don’t go the distance?  Or, on the flip side, can it actually help?


Let’s investigate.


Clearly, the amount of alcohol one consumes as well as frequency and context are all factors to be considered. It’s one thing to enjoy a neat potato-vodka before dinner with your significant other; it’s another to start pounding shots on your own late at night after another stressful day at work.


While daily consumption of up to four drinks may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system, I think it’s safe to say that most people aren’t turning to wine or other alcoholic drinks in lieu of taking a vitamin or eating more kale. In addition, it’s doubtful that athletes would chose alcohol as an ergogenic aid… or would they?


Turns out, it depends on the type of sport the athlete competes in:1


  • A moderate amount of alcohol can result in decreased hand tremors, improved balance and throwing accuracy, and a clearer release in archery, but in slower reaction time and decreased eye-hand coordination.
  • Alcohol has been shown to lack an effect on strength in various muscle groups, on muscular endurance, and on 100-meter run time

  • In terms of aerobic performance, moderate amounts of alcohol can impair 800- and 1500- meter run times. Because of its diuretic property, it can also result in dehydration, being especially detrimental in both performance and health during prolonged exercise in hot environments.


Ok, fellow endurance enthusiasts, do you copy?  No drinking before heading out on that long run! But what about the day before? Or as a general daily guideline for athletes who drink alcohol?


For pre-event timing, The American College of Sports Medicine recommends avoiding alcohol beyond low-amount social drinking for 48 hours. For post-exercise, it suggests rehydrating first and consuming food to retard any alcohol absorption.2


However, most of the studies examining alcohol and athlete recovery have focused predominately on functional measures of muscle performance and blood-borne markers of cellular tissue damage, which have produced inconclusive results that fail to demonstrate a dose-dependency or critical threshold above which muscular recovery is compromised.3


Perhaps a common sense approach would be the best bet here. None of us want to be inflamed, athletic status aside. If we follow a real Paleo diet and add some health-boosting wine in moderation, appropriately timed, it may just be one of the small pleasures that keep one in check in the grand scheme of things.


One might even argue that a single glass of red wine, along with your early dinner of roast skin-on chicken, yam and broccoli with olive oil the night before a race might, in fact, help to settle those inevitable jitters of excitement that occur no matter how seasoned a race veteran one might be, present company included!




[1] The Effects Of Alcohol ACSM CURRENT COMMENT (n.d.): n. pag. Web.


[3] Vella, Luke D., and David Cameron-Smith. “Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery.” Nutrients. MDPI, n.d. Web. 09 July 2015