I was talking with an athlete earlier this week and our conversation turned to the issue of weight, as it has during nearly every coaching conversation we’ve had in the past year.
The athlete I was talking to is probably not that different from you.
He has worked hard and improved significantly. His power at lactate threshold is up, his weight is down, and he’s climbing faster than he has in 10 years. But his rate of progress has slowed, as it naturally does for any athlete, and he’s looking for ways to continue improving his power-to-weight ratio. His training is gradually increasing the power side of the equation, but the weight side of the equation is stalled.
Every time we talk he asks about another fad diet and I explain why it won’t work and how important it is for his nutrition strategy to optimally support his activity level and recovery needs. And his diet – like so many athletes we work with – is generally quite good. Athletes have gotten the message about eating whole food, minimizing processed food and fast food, incorporating lean protein and adequate fat, avoiding added sugar, and managing portions (although this is still a big challenge for a lot of athletes). The elephant in the room, though, is alcohol.
In a nutshell, here’s my advice: If you are struggling to lose the last 5-10 pounds on the way to a goal weight, stop drinking alcohol. If you want to keep drinking, that’s fine, but then stop complaining that you’re carrying extra weight when you ride or run.
I, for one, have decided I like a great glass of wine. Even better, I love sharing a great bottle of wine with friends. I also accept the consequences of being an athlete who consumes a moderate amount of alcohol. It’s important that you also understand those consequences so you can make an informed choice for yourself:
Alcohol Has Zero Benefit for Performance
There is evidence that moderate alcohol intake, including spirits, beer, and wine, may help people live longer (Paganini-Hill, 2007). That’s great news, but doesn’t mean alcohol improves athletic performance. As with other areas of sports science and nutrition (like sugar, fat, and sodium intakes) it is important to separate health-oriented from performance-oriented benefits.
Alcohol Is Non-Nutritive
There is no part of your body that needs alcohol. By itself alcohol provides no nutrition. It does, however, provide calories. A gram of alcohol provides 7 calories, almost twice as many as carbohydrate or protein (4 calories/gram) and nearly as many as fat (9 calories/gram).
You could look at that and say, “Alcohol provides energy, so it’s good!” But alcohol can’t even do that on its own, as you’ll see next. And high-calorie, fat-rich foods like avocados can deliver additional vitamins, minerals, and positive nutrients. Alcohol just delivers the calories without the nutrition.
Alcohol Is Metabolized as Fat
Your body is great at making the fuel it needs from other substances. For instance, you can make new glucose from protein via gluconeogenesis! In certain circumstances, you can make ketones from fat to fuel muscles and the brain when carbohydrate is unavailable.
But not only can your body not run on alcohol, you also metabolize it as fat rather than carbohydrate. Now, you can certainly use fat for energy and can even adapt to become better and more efficient at burning fat, but alcohol is not a good source of usable energy.
Alcohol Is a Powerful Diuretic
Your hydration status is directly linked to your post-workout recovery and the quality of your next training session. Alcohol is a diuretic, and even though your drinks are not entirely ethanol, it doesn’t take much for the diuretic effect of alcohol to overwhelm the amount of fluid in the drink and lead to an overall negative fluid balance. To consume alcohol after training is like purposely obstructing or counteracting the positive adaptations you were working to achieve.
How does this relate to weight loss? Training builds fitness and greater fitness gives you the tools to do more work per unit time (higher power output, more kilojoules per hour), which thereby increases the caloric expenditure you can achieve per hour and per training session. Hindering training adaptation or the quality of tomorrow’s workout slows or halts your training and weight management progress.
Alcohol Disturbs Sleep
Sleep is restorative and crucial for recovering from and adapting to training stress. While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, you end up taking longer to reach REM sleep and spend less overall time in REM sleep cycles.
The biggest benefits to restfulness and training adaptation happen during REM sleep, so anything that reduces sleep quality ends up hurting your training. Being less rested also influences all of your decision making the next day, making it less likely that you will stick with a thoughtful nutrition strategy.
Alcohol Messes With Glycogen Replenishment
A post-workout beer is probably the worst thing you can do after any exercise you intend to benefit from. Yes, beer and wine have carbohydrate in them. No, that carbohydrate does not end up in your muscles. Not only does the alcohol get metabolized to fat, but even when you consume carbohydrates with the alcohol (pretzels and beer), glycogen replenishment is delayed by the presence of alcohol (Burke, 2003).
Note, I specifically used the phrase “exercise you intend to benefit from” in the paragraph above. When you roll across the finish line of the Dirty Kanza 200 or finished up an epic weekend ride with your friends, that post-ride beer may be part of the experience you’re looking for, and if that’s the case enjoy the beer! It’s important to realize there’s a difference between optimizing your training and creating the experience you want to have with the fitness you’ve worked hard for.
Alcohol Messes With Muscle Protein Synthesis
Alcohol lowers testosterone production and increases cortisol levels. Together these effects conspire to hinder muscle protein synthesis. Remember, muscle synthesis isn’t just necessary for building bigger muscles; it is also necessary for repairing and maintaining the muscle mass you have right now.
Again, you might wonder what this has to do with weight loss. Athletes tell me all the time that they are getting fat because metabolism slows as we get older. Not exactly. Metabolism is driven by muscle mass, and muscle mass tends to decline as we age because we have less combined activity in our lifestyle and training. If you further hinder your ability to maintain or build muscle by consuming alcohol, you are effectively cancelling out one of the biggest opportunities you have to keep your metabolism from falling.
In the face of everything written above, I will continue to consume and enjoy wine, beer, and whiskey. When my athletic goals were much loftier I didn’t drink alcohol. In later years as a more casual competitor, whenever I made a concerted effort to lose weight I eliminated alcohol for a period of time.
What I tell athletes is that your decision about alcohol depends on your performance and weight management goals. Alcohol won’t help you achieve either one. If you are struggling to reach valuable performance or weight management goals, eliminating alcohol needs to be part of the solution. If you’re not willing to do that, that’s fine, but then don’t say you’ve done everything you can to perform at your best and don’t complain about being heavier than you want to be.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
Burke, Louise M., Greg R. Collier, Elizabeth M. Broad, Peter G. Davis, David T. Martin, Andrew J. Sanigorski, and Mark Hargreaves. “Effect of Alcohol Intake on Muscle Glycogen Storage after Prolonged Exercise.” Journal of Applied Physiology J Appl Physiol 95.3 (2003): 983-90.
Paganini-Hill, A., C. H. Kawas, and M. M. Corrada. “Type of Alcohol Consumed, Changes in Intake over Time and Mortality: The Leisure World Cohort Study.” Age and Ageing 36.2 (2007): 203-09.