By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Alcohol has long been engrained in the culture of sports, from champagne on the podium to beer commercials during football games and the ever-present ice-cold beer at the finish line of gran fondos, charity rides and runs, and weekend adventures. But the long term data on alcohol consumption, compounded by a recent surge in alcohol sales during a time of stress and uncertainty, suggests it might be time for athletes to change our relationship with alcohol.
American adults are consuming more alcohol than 20 years ago, according to the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a federal committee charged with making recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. Furthermore, deaths attributable to alcohol doubled between 1999-2017, according to a report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health. During that period, the 45-74 age group had the highest rate of death attributable to alcohol. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated 23.6 percent increase in alcohol sales between March and August 2020 in the United States. Now, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee advises changing the recommended limit on alcohol consumption from two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women to one drink per day for men and women.
I’m right in the middle of that age group with highest rate of deaths attributable to alcohol, as are the majority of athletes working with CTS Coaches. Perhaps not so coincidently, it’s also the age group (45-64) that experienced a 45% increase in deaths from suicide between 2006 and 2016, also before the additional health and economic stressors from the pandemic. The stay-at-home and work-from-home guidelines have also made it easier for many people to increase alcohol intake. No commutes leave more evening time available for drinking, there are no big bar tabs, and people can sleep in a bit or at least nurse a hangover while working from home. Middle age can be a stressful period in life, and many of us utilize both exercise and alcohol as stress relievers. Used in excess, both can be harmful, but we have constructed a few myths about alcohol to help us think it’s actually helpful.
It’s not. Alcohol does nothing helpful or beneficial for athletes. If you want to keep drinking, that’s fine, but let’s dispense with the idea it’s good for you. Here are three of the mythical benefits I hear from athletes about why the consume alcohol.
Alcohol helps you sleep
A glass or wine or a few beers might initially make you feel drowsy, but in the long run alcohol diminishes sleep quality and disrupts the stages of sleep. It leads you to sleep lightly, spend less time in REM sleep, and wake more frequently. All of these increase next-day fatigue, which then contributes to the lifestyle-, job-, and relationship-stresses that make an evening drink and a nightcap enticing. Athletes also need to consider that optimizing sleep is the number one thing you can do to improve recovery and athletic performance.
Beer is hydrating
The metabolism of ethanol is dehydrating, and the question of whether beer hydrates or dehydrates comes from the fact there’s a lot of water in beer. Based on alcohol by volume (ABV), beer is typically 4-5% alcohol, wine is more like 12-15%, and many spirits are much higher (shots, anyone?). Some people–including new “performance beer” brands–make the case that the electrolytes and minerals in beer mitigate the dehydrating effect of the alcohol, or even provide benefits that override the negatives from alcohol. The science generally supports the idea that a low-alcohol (<2% ABV), particularly with added sodium, does not significantly impair rehydration. With higher ABV beers, the balance tips toward negatively impacting net fluid balance.
If you’re torn on the idea of skipping the post-ride beer, I get it. I have to say that there’s nothing quite like an ice-cold beer right at the end of a hot day on the bike. Thankfully, there has been a revolution in the non-alcoholic beer industry. Non-alcoholic beer used to be like taking the worst beer and removing its only redeeming quality, the alcohol. Now, craft brewers have started making non-alcoholic products for those who want to enjoy a beer that tastes good, even without the alcohol.
A drink a day is good for your heart
This is probably the most persistent rationale athletes have for continuing to consume alcohol, the idea that a drink a day, or a similarly low to moderate level of consumption, can reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Research generally concludes there’s a J-shaped curve associated with alcohol’s overall effect on cardiovascular disease risk. As alcohol intake increases from zero, the is first a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk (the bottom of the J), followed by a significant increase in risk. My assertion for athletes is that your long-term commitment to fitness has already imparted health benefits associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk, and exercise has also had some positive effect on athletes’ long-term response to lifestyle, career, and relationship stress. What I don’t profess to know is whether there could be additive benefits of long-term fitness and consistent low-level alcohol consumption.
As my coaches and I help our athletes navigate this stressful time, the downsides of alcohol as a coping mechanism clearly and consistently outweigh the benefits of continuing to drink. Now that we’re moving from the initial shock of the pandemic and economic crisis to the longer process of living with them, it is a good time to reassess your alcohol consumption and the reasons behind it.