We Know Muscle Doesn’t Like Booze, But What Effect Does Drink Really Have On Your Exercise Programme?

We’ve all been there: bleary-eyed and head thumping like you’ve been on the receiving end of a roundhouse kick from Patrick Swayze in Road House, you groggily stumble out of the door, contents of your head swilling side-to-side like the previous night’s pitcher of premium lager as you lurch off to the gym.

But just what are the effects of boozing in relation to fitness? Can you make gains on a hangover? How much is too much, and can a balance be struck where drinking is actually beneficial? RISING spoke to nutritionist and physiologist Rick Hay to set the record straight once and for all.

Don’t Sweat The Strong Stuff

Sweating off a hangover? Sorry, it’s a myth – only 5-10% of the alcohol that isn’t metabolised by your liver gets released through your breath, urine and sweat, so no amount of pumping iron will fully banish the effects of a big session on your body.

While light exercise can help cleanse your system, to a degree, ‘overdoing it could make you feel twice as bad’, warns Hay, who is also quick to stress that working out on a hangover leads to a bigger risk of injury. ‘Your body is severely dehydrated and as result your electrolytes are imbalanced, putting you more at risk of muscle cramps, strains or worse.’

Should your exercise goal be shedding body fat, a post-booze training session could even be counterproductive: ‘The body is quite lazy. It burns alcohol before it does body fat because that’s the easiest energy source, with all the sugars in there – your body then stores the excess fat.’

Boozing Plays Havoc With Your Testosterone

‘Another big issue is how excessive drinking puts the body in a more of a stress state,’ reveals Hay. ‘Your adrenal glands release a steroid hormone known as cortisol, making it even harder to metabolise fat.’

Indeed, heavy drinking can seriously impair hormone regulation, which is a fairly big factor in building muscle or losing weight, and just five drinks – seemingly the standard amount when slogging through idle chit-chat with in-laws at a cookout – is enough to have a severe impact on testosterone levels.

Not only that: according to Hay, five beers would even deplete your sleep patterns to such an extent that your human growth hormone takes a hit as well, nerfing any post-workout muscle repair. It’s also important to remember the dangers associated with regular binge drinking, including blackouts, partial memory loss, brain damage and anxiety issues. ‘It’s not an answer to the blues,’ adds Hay.

‘When your electrolytes are imbalanced, you’re at more risk of injury’

Where There’s A Will There’s A Whey

The next time you absolutely have to hit the bar after a gym session, you should grab a protein shake first. In 2014, a US study at West Virginia’s School of Medicine looked at the impact of drinking after exercise on muscle protein synthesis, finding that those who went drinking for a three-hour period after a gym session saw protein synthesis decrease by 37%. Those who had whey protein drinks after their session saw the protein synthesis drop by ‘only’ 24%. It’s still a big hit, but you’re into damage limitation here. Hay agrees: ‘It’s true, whey is great for muscle recovery when your body and mind are struggling – after 48 hours your body should have rid itself of most of the booze.’

Booze Is Mostly Bad – But Could The Blood-Thinning Qualities Provide A Cardio Boost?

Alcohol acts as a blood thinner, so does that mean that there are vascular benefits associated with sinking a cold one? ‘It really does have circularity benefits, particularly when hitting the treadmill,’ says Hay. ‘The key, again, is in achieving a balance’.

If that isn’t enough to have you reaching inside the fridge, past studies have found moderate alcohol consumption has been known to lessen rates of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and lead to people living longer, especially those over 65 with excellent cognitive and memory function.

And Is Gin A Surprising Tonic?

Hay believes some booze is better than others (‘alcohol is essentially devoid of any nutrients, but red wine is the exception to the rule’) and that gin – a spirit which is positively loaded with antioxidants – could be the most underrated drink of all. ‘So long as you don’t go overboard, gin can briefly improve cognitive function. This is due to the chemicals in the juniper berries helping to stimulate brain circulation, which, who knows, could be as beneficial in the gym as it is in the boardroom the next day’.

‘One drink every other night will de-stress you and help you get a better sleep’

Can Social Drinking And Fitness Co-Habit?

It might seem that boozy gains are about as likely as a vegan steakhouse – but in fact, if you avoid binge drinking and approach alcohol like a self-aware adult, then you may actually benefit from a moderate intake. The fact is that while most of us can get the ‘work’ part of ‘workout’ done, we’re absolutely terrible at the essential vegging-‘out’ part.

‘Our society is overly stressed and busy,’ says Hay. ‘If I had the choice of someone drinking a beer and feeling relaxed and fulfilled, versus the potential negative effects of those drinks, I’d rather they tried the former before cutting out booze altogether. It’s like clean eating – you can go too extreme with it. A drink after work every other night to chill you out isn’t such a terrible idea. You’ll get some of the benefits of relaxation, and it’ll help you get better sleep as well.’

So, drinking after your workout is a bad idea, but light alcohol intake as part of your relaxation routine may help you to avoid living an overly frenetic, gains-sapping lifestyle. Just avoid drinking close to your bedtime – allow plenty of time for the alcohol to be metabolised out first.

WHAT NEXT? Feeling the thirst following a big gym sesh? You can still get your sociable beer hit minus the booze, with the growing availability of no-alcohol beers, such as Heineken’s new 0.0%. And studies have championed non-alcoholic beer as a post-workout recovery drink due to faster hydration and electrolyte replacement. The heavy presence of polyphenols has also been found to help fight off flu and other viral infections. Cheers!