Runners Plate

Runner’s Plate: Beer – a runner’s friend or foe?

Funning beerAs I scour race descriptions to fill my spring race calendar, I can’t help but notice how many races are sponsored by beer companies or tout the post-race beer festival to entice runners to register. Perhaps it’s that I live in Boston, where the number of beers on tap often surpass the number of food items on a restaurant’s menu.  But, in other cities, if it’s not beer, it’s wine (hello wine country marathon series), or whisky (ever heard of the Bourbon Chase?). And we runners embrace this counterintuitive pairing — these are some of the most popular races! Runners often joke about carbo-loading with beer, or calming nerves with a glass of wine the night before the race. But do alcohol and running really mix?

There is growing evidence that beer and wine, in moderation (1 serving per day for women, 2 for men) may have some health benefits. But when it comes to it’s effects on endurance sports, the same is not likely true.  You know the feeling – you’ve had one two many beers on a Friday night and then head out for what seems like the most treacherous long run Saturday morning. Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening here.

  1. Alcohol is a diuretic (translation – it can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances). We’ve discussed the importance of staying hydrated during training and races many times on this blog. Run dehydrated and you’re more likely to get muscle cramps or pulls, and you fatigue much sooner.  And unfortunately chasing down an Advil with a large glass of water before you head out to the pavement isn’t going to do much for you. So, if you choose to drink alcohol the night before a run, try to keep it to 1-2 drinks, and match the number of drinks with glasses of water (or more!). With that said, overdoing it can leave you dehydrated for several days, so if you have a milestone run or a race on your calendar, limit (or even better, avoid) alcohol for at least the 3-4 days leading upDehydrated to the run.
  2. Alcohol disrupts your sleep. Ever notice how after a night of drinking you wake up bright and early (or even in the middle of the night) and unable to fall back asleep, even though you know you didn’t get enough sleep? That’s because while alcohol first acts as a depressant (making it easy for you to fall asleep), as your body metabolizes it, alcohol becomes a stimulant – about 4-6 hours later. Disrupting your sleep schedule can slow your coordination, reduce your energy, and just plain reduce the effectiveness of your run.
  3. It can slow reaction time and reduce your coordination. This may seem obvious – it’s why drinking and driving don’t go together. But these effects of reduced reaction time, coordination and awareness have been shown to linger, even after the buzz has worn off.  This can make for a less effective run the next day, and possibly even injury.
  4. Alcohol slows recovery. Because of it’s powerful diuretic quality, alcohol can hinder recovery and hinder your body’s ability to remove lactic acid from the muscle, leaving you more sore for days. It also interferes with the secretion of important hormones such as human growth hormone and testosterone, both of which play a role in muscle repair.
  5. It’s full of calories, and not the good ones. Now I don’t think anyone drinks a beer thinking, “this is great nutrition.” But the myth that beer is full of carbs, is, well just that—a myth. One 12 ounce beer has between 8-12g of carbohydrates, or about ¾ slice of bread. And unfortunately, your body doesn’t process these carbohydrates and turn them muscle fuel (glycogen) as it would the bread. Alcohol is primarily processed and stored as fat – not exactly what runners are hoping for. Not to mention a few drinks can lead to poor food choices (late night nachos anyone?). This is not to say that you shouldn’t ever enjoy a beer or a glass of wine – after all, part of the benefit of running is the ability to eat or drink a little more than non-athletes.  Just be conscious of the number of drinks you choose to have, and eat before or while you’re enjoying that drink to help avoid those late night bar binges.

All of this is not to wave fingers or make you feel like you shouldn’t sign up for one of those beer company sponsored races – what’s a good race without a little celebration afterwards? But as you cross that finish line, grab water and some food, and then reach for the beer.

What do you think about beer companies sponsoring races? 

- Sarah

(Sarah has a Masters in nutrition communication and is a future registered dietitian, currently completing a nationally recognized dietetic internship at The Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston  Sarah is a certified spin instructor, a triathlete, and an avid runner who regularly participates in road races from 5k to  1/2 marathons.  She too enjoys a post-race beer. Follow her onTwitter @SpinnerSarah and at her personal blog Food and Fitness Friend.)

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