Avoid alcohol after training or competing because it will erase all possible performance gains and delay recovery. This is especially true for very intense workouts such as those that include heavy eccentrics, sprint workouts, or competitions.
A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research using rugby players showed that you should completely avoid alcohol after hard workouts or competitions, but you should also avoid it within 36 hours prior to a competition because the effects linger. If that doesn’t deter you, consider that a second study of male non-athletes found that the more these men drank within the five days prior to the study, the more estrogen they produced. This significantly compromised sperm production and decreased fertility.
Let’s review the evidence about the effects of alcohol so that you can make an informed decision. In the rugby study, players competed in a match and then were given dinner with a large dose of vodka in orange juice (alcohol content equal to 7 drinks) or a placebo. The next morning results showed that cortisol was significantly elevated, power output was compromised, and estrogen was higher in the group that drank the vodka. Cognitive performance was also poorer in the alcohol group than the placebo group.
There was no decrease in maximal strength in the alcohol group, however, that may be because the exercise performed in the rugby match was intense enough. Previous studies that tested alcohol use after more damaging workouts showed different effects on maximal strength. For example, a similar study that used an alcohol dose of about 3 standard drinks after having young men perform 300 maximal eccentric contractions of the quadriceps decreased the ability to generate force by 45 percent. Better news, a second study that tested a smaller alcohol dose of about a drink and a half showed no drop off in maximal strength or performance.
Researchers think the biggest danger to drinking alcohol post-exercise is a poor hormonal environment for recovery. As seen in this study, estrogen was higher indicating that aromatization, in which testosterone is turned into estrogen, had occurred. Studies of more regular alcohol use show a significant increase in aromatization, low fertility, and a feminization of men, as seen by a higher estrogen to testosterone ratio.
There was also evidence of poor cognitive performance, which decreased reaction time and decision making in the alcohol group. Not only will a “hangover” affect peak performance and recovery, but it will compromise learning and skill development during practice as well.
Your best bet is to avoid alcohol entirely and especially on the evening after hard workouts or competitions. If you do drink on other days, strategies to minimize the negative effects include the following:
• Keep the dose small, to less than two drinks and be sure to drink water with electrolytes.
• Choose red wine because it has been shown to support insulin sensitivity and it does not appear to be inflammatory, as liquor, beer, and white wine are.
• Get extra B vitamins and amino acids to support detoxification of alcohol. The rugby study found that the players were urinating more after the alcohol, which could easily produce dehydration, particularly if hydration was already low from exercise.
• Boost antioxidant intake to aid the body in recovery. Green tea is proven effective at aiding liver function when metabolizing alcohol. Larger doses of green tea are more effective—shoot for five cups a day or get a green tea supplement to increase your dose.
• Focus on optimal nutrition and avoid carbs. Eat high-quality protein with berries and green vegetables to boost antioxidant levels.