Alcohol is funny
Not HA HA HAH funny…even though you may think so after you’ve had a few.
It’s funny because it is an ever-increasing part of most people’s social lives and is one of the most commonly consumed and socially acceptable drugs in the world.
In spite of this, it seems to also be at odds with our health, mental well-being and (the reason you’re likely reading this) our physical appearance and performance.
We have no NEED to consume alcohol but most of us have a strong DESIRE to do so.
For most it’s the catalyst that causes a shift from sensible, button-down family life to a weekend of carnage and debauchery and many people at some point in their lives rely on it as an on-demand source of stress relief and release.
Lately, we’ve seen the emergence of a “stay sober” community and we’ve discussed this at length ourselves and even chatted with the leaders in this field.
Honestly, aside from a brief initial discussion, I’m going to ignore that as a possibility throughout this article, simply because, as usual, I think the answer lies in analytical consideration and shades of grey, not just giving up alcohol for a month because it sounds extreme or feels like a nuclear fix to your issues.
Cold turkey as a strategy does have merits in some circumstances, but I think this should be a carefully considered option before you join a tee-total challenge
While I’m not a Doctor and don’t play one on the internet, I would only advise considering tee-totalism as a strategy if you feel affinity with one of the following:
- You feel reliant in any way on alcohol to get through your day or week.
- You experience any resistance to the prospect of going a few days or weeks without alcohol and are always thinking about your next drink or night out to get you through stressful periods.
- You’re consuming alcohol by yourself, regularly and as a way to numb feelings or underlying emotions.
- You’re not capable of consuming alcohol in a moderate manner. Every time you drink you start off intending to have 1 or 2 and end upon an all-night bender.
- You in any way feel out of control with this part of your life.
Abstinence is a viable strategy for 2 reasons.
Either you intend to never consume it again (nuclear option), OR you intend to re-introduce alcohol in a more moderate way. Therefore, if you have no plan for moderation and management and you plan to go on a total bender after your little 30 day no alcohol challenge, there is ZERO benefit to be gained aside from a brag on social media and perhaps a pat on the back.
Equally, if you get through the no alcohol challenge by simply replacing your habit with something equally as negative or pound the alcohol-free alternatives to numb the discomfort, you’re unlikely to experience a positive net change as a result and I’d imagine your habits won’t change much in the long-term.
Of course, I would suggest that if you or loved ones consider your issues with alcohol to fall under the category of “addiction” to seek professional help.
If you’re reading this article, you likely:
- Currently drink alcohol as part of your social life and plan to continue doing so.
- Currently lift weights, manage your nutrition and aspire to improve your health, fitness and physique.
- Have an appreciation for the fact that alcohol consumption can (and does) contradict these goals.
- Don’t consider tee-totalism as a realistic long-term option.
I drink alcohol most weeks of my life and while I don’t consider myself a prolific user of the drug, I do put management strategies in place to limit the potential damage and downside.
To date, I’ve managed to attain “abs lean” status and compete in Powerlifting to an international level while regularly consuming alcohol. While I can’t speak of the possible long-term health consequences of regular drinking, I can say anecdotally for myself and clients that I’ve worked with, if you implement the following strategies, you can hit nearly any fitness goal without having to give up drinking.
What I intend to provide within this article are management strategies that encourage a moderated middle ground by defining some evidence based strategies that allow you to drink in your leisure time without feeling like you’re killing your gains.
First, let us define terms using the Propane dictionary.
What is this article going to do?
Well, something really pisses me off in the online fitness world and, in fact, it annoyed me when several years ago I was on my own search for how to manage alcohol as part of a fitness enthusiast’s life.
Everything online focusses on the same old boring crap.
Alcohol has this many calories…
Alcohol does this in the liver…
In the studies alcohol damages protein synthesis for X hours by Y amount…
And I’m terribly sorry, excuse my French but…WHO GIVES A SHIT!
Here’s the thing. Of course, it pays to understand the details of what alcohol is and isn’t and I am going to cover that. However, that is nearly totally irrelevant if we don’t conclude with some meaningful strategies and tactics to deal with the “in the trenches” aspect of this.
Like, “Jonny, I’m going on a PROPER bender this Friday, any tips”.
The answer to that doesn’t begin with “AHA, let me just consult PubMed…”
To summarise. This article is going to be in two parts.
- The first will be discussing the dirty details of what alcohol is and how it actually impacts what we care about (muscles and stuff).
- Following this, I will actually synthesise this into some meaningful data and tactics for you!
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a Macronutrient.
Yep, it’s a Macronutrient.
That means that like our good friends Paul the Protein, Camilla the Carbohydrate and Frankie the Fat, it contains calories for every gram you consume.
That’s right folks, a shot of your favourite spirit is nearly as calorific as a shot of olive oil.
Theoretically, alcohol contains 7 kcal/gramme, nearly as calorie dense as fat. However, the thermic effects of digestion do suggest that the net usable calories we receive from consuming alcohol are likely lower than this.
Thing is, as you will see below, this is nearly entirely irrelevant for our purposes.
OK, OK, so what do I need to know?
Let’s look at how alcohol can actually impact the things that we care about when it comes to getting big and strong and handsome.
Alcohol & Fat Loss
SilerSQ, NeeseRA, HellersteinMK determined that consuming 24g of alcohol activates the Hepatic DNL pathway modestly, but acetate produced in the liver and released into plasma inhibits lipolysis, alters tissue fuel selection, and represents the major quantitative fate of ingested ethanol.
I know, I know.
How does this translate into English?
Firstly, 24g of alcohol is equivalent to 3 units of alcohol, we’re talking just over a 250 ml glass of wine or 1 5.2% ABV pint of beer.
Simply put…not a lot!
In fact, it’s not uncommon for this to be someone’s daily night time tipple!
The FOCUS of this study is this effect:
inhibits lipolysis, alters tissue fuel selection, and represents the major quantitative fate of ingested ethanol.
This simply means that in the presence of acetate (the product of alcohol metabolism) we transiently stop burning body fat.
Pretty fucking worrying, right?
1 glass of wine is enough to stop lipolysis! Pass me the water!
Sonko BJ et al concluded from their work on the effect of alcohol on post meal fat storage that while fat metabolism IS indeed initially supressed, the balance is later restored after the alcohol has been metabolised. They also, crucially, conclude that alcohol has a fat-sparing effect similar to that of carbohydrate and will only cause fat gain when consumed in excess of normal energy needs.
In other words…
It STILL comes back to total calories in vs. total calories out.
Simplicity wins again.
(Sigh of relief)
Now, hold on to your socks here. We’re about to go a bit geeky for a sec. Don’t get cross, OK?
When we ingest alcohol, we see 2 oxidation reactions catalysed by Alcohol dehydrogenase. Ethanol is converted to Acetaldehyde which is then converted into Acetate.
Well, this causes NAD+ to convert into NADH.
This favours the conversion of:
A) Pyruvate to lactate
B) Oxaloacetate to malate.
Now, Pyruvate & Oxaloacetate are GLUCONEOGENICPRECURSORS.
This means they are used to create NEW glucose when we’re running low!
(Jonny, honestly mate, shut the F#! up!)
Here’s the rub.
This means that we have lower glucose synthesis and we see reactive hypoglycemia.
That means you get HUUUUNNNGRRRY.
Cheesy chips anyone?
In summary, as well as the physiological impacts of alcohol on fat loss, we do need to consider how the consumption of alcohol influences our calorie intake indirectly. , we will inadvertently wreck our efforts during the rest of the week.
Alcohol & Muscle/Strength Gain
We have two sides to examine here.
- One is the impact on MPS (muscle protein synthesis) and the other is
- The impact on Testosterone (with downstream effects for muscle and strength gain)
Here’s Yusef to explain what MPS is and why we need to care about it:
Muscle & Strength Gain
Alcohol Prior To Exercise
ClarksonPM1, ReichsmanF.gave 10 women alcohol PRIOR to exercise and tested protein leakage, damage,force production and range of motion. They found NO difference in the alcohol and non-alcohol groups.
In summary, drinking alcohol PRIOR to training won’t exaggerate the tissue damage you accumulate during the session.
So, for those of you who have just been yearning for a reason to smash some pints before you next squat, you’re in luck!
Alcohol after exercise
Parr and Camera tested 8 active men by giving them either alcohol, whey and alcohol or carbs and alcohol, accounting for total calorie load of each. Muscle biopsies were taken 2 and 8 hours post exercise.
They concluded that muscle protein synthesis was suppressed, even when combining alcohol with protein.
In summary, the bad news is that even if we drink down our beer with a protein shake, protein synthesis IS decreased following alcohol ingestion.
So, no…slamming a shake with Tequila won’t save us.
(I was upset by this too, don’t worry)
Alcohol & muscle performance
PoulsenMB1, JakobsenJ, AagaardNK, Andersen H tested 19 healthy men and women to see if alcohol ingestion impacted Isokinetic and isometric muscle strength and endurance were impacted (in other words, how strong they were and stuff).
They concluded that:
“a single episode of moderate alcohol intoxication (1,4 g/l) does not impair motor performance, and no accelerated exercise-induced muscle damage is seen”.
In summary, alcohol may impact protein synthesis and our recovery, but in terms of how much weight you can lift or how long you can run for, it ain’t no thang!
Alcohol & testosterone
Firstly, here’s Yusef to explain why we want to care about testosterone as it relates to muscle and strength gain:
SierksmaA1, SarkolaT, ErikssonCJ, vander GaagMS, GrobbeeDE, HendriksHF.tested 10 men and 9 women with 30-40g of alcohol daily for 6 weeks.
They concluded that:
“moderate alcohol consumption increased plasma DHEAS level by 16.5% (95% confidence interval, 8.0-24.9), with similar changes for men and women. Plasma testosterone level decreased in men by 6.8% (95% confidence interval, -1.0- -12.5), but no effect was found in women.”
It is worth noting that 30-40g of alcohol is 3-4 standard drinks which is likely more than average on a daily basis. Even when aggregated to a weekly basis, all consumed on one day 21-28 drinks in one evening would be enough to hospitalise most people.
Equally, a 6.8% decrease is a relatively small decrease but alcohol does seem to give a bit of a kick in the nuts (deliberate) to our testosterone.
Girls, no need to worry.
Guys, we’re fucked (maybe).
Muscle & Strength Gain Summary
Alcohol has the following impacts:
1) Reduces muscle protein synthesis after exercise, it’s safe to assume that this is only while alcohol is being metabolised.
2) Alcohol doesn’t appear to have a significant effect on strength, endurance or power output.
3) Alcohol does decrease testosterone in men, this seems to be a relatively small decrease from large doses. Again, this is likely to be only on a short-term basis.
Alcohol & Sleep
If you’re reading this, I think you’ll have likely experienced that sleep can drastically affect not only how you feel but also things like:
– Training performance
– Perceived recovery and soreness
– Hunger and food cravings
– Emotional wellbeing
– Energy and willpower
In other words, it’s pretty damn important.
Moreover, as our work life balance is constantly tested by an increasingly connected world, chances are you aren’t currently benefiting from the luxury of 8+ hours per night.
With this, we need to consider how we can get the most bang for our snoozy bucks.
Researchers from the Akita University School of Medicine have published some peer-reviewed work on alcohol and its effects on sleep. The researchers measured sleep and heart rate variability (as a way of testing autonomic nervous system activity) and the impact alcohol has on both.
Our autonomic nervous system is (in case you don’t know) made up of:
– Sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight, stress)
– Parasympathetic nervous system (functions while resting)
While sleeping, we expect to see an increase in parasympathetic and a decrease in sympathetic. Heart rate variability (the variation in the beat to beat interval of the heart) is controlled by our autonomic nervous system and so can give us a reading on the relative activity of the two.
10 male students were given low, medium or high doses of alcohol and were told to consume the alcohol 1 hour and 40 minutes prior to sleep.
Lots of conclusions were drawn but to surmise, those who drank the “high” doses of alcohol experienced a shallower sleep and a decrease in REM sleep. They also concluded that alcohol interrupts parasympathetic activity (heart rate was higher with more alcohol) and so the restorative effects are reduced.
I know, I know…alcohol detrimentally effects your sleep.
(No Shit Sherlock?!)
But now we can definitively say that doses of 1g/kg of alcohol:
– For a 90kg man = 4-5 pints OR 3-4 glasses of wine
– For a 60kg woman = 3-4 pints OR 2-3 glasses of wine
Of course, this depends on strength of the wine and beer but the above wouldn’t be a crazy night on the tiles for most people and yet with these doses, noticeable decreases in sleep quality were noted.
Consuming alcohol at 1g/kg can cause:
– More time in stage 1 sleep and less time in deeper stages of sleep.
– More wake ups
– Less parasympathetic activity and a lower restorative benefit to sleep
– Higher heart rate
Methods of management
So, now we know the details. My typical pet peeve is with articles that just spew loads of number and data at you with no succinct way of managing this information and integrating it into your life.
Within all of our coaching programs we utilise the 3i Formula
What this says in short is that in order to succeed, we need a combination and integration of information, integration and Individual Accountability.
In other words, it’s nice to know the ins and outs of the science as it relates to alcohol and how it affects our progress. However, if we just become one of those people who sits and masturbates over PubMed, it isn’t going to help us AT ALL with our progress.
So, the first step, we’ve covered. We need information that is simple (so that we can actually use it) and relevant (to us, our lives and our goals).
The next piece of this puzzle is integration. In other words, how do we go about actually using this information inside of our worlds. This, in my opinion is where most coaches and articles fail and what I’m going to cover now.
And individual accountability…well if you want that, you can always ask us for help here.
Anyway, It would be slightly hypocritical to give you information without at least hinting at how you may go about implementing it!
Here’s what we know.
Consuming alcohol for the purposes of fat loss, muscle gain and strength will impact us in the following ways:
Calories & Fat loss
✔︎ Temporarily prevents fat metabolism while alcohol is converted to Acetate.
✔︎ Provides an additional source of calories outside of carbs, protein and fat that we need to somehow track and account for. Alcohol still adheres to the laws of thermodynamics despite what online gurus may have you believe.
✔︎ Due to the methods of metabolism, . Priming the canvas for overeating.
✔︎ We (obviously) experience lowered inhibition and discipline. Combined with low blood sugar, we’re more likely to overeat on days we drink.
Muscle & Strength Gain
✔︎ Drinking PRIOR to training hasn’t been shown to accelerate or exaggerate muscle damage, however, this likely won’t lead to the most productive training session.
✔︎ Even when combining alcohol with protein post, 2 and 8 hours post workout, muscle protein synthesis is suppressed. Not only will this hamper our recovery but also the training effect we receive from a training session.
✔︎ Alcohol does not seem to have any negative impact on force generation and muscular endurance.
✔︎ Alcohol when consumed in relatively large amounts and over a sustained period does slightly negatively impact testosterone levels in men.
Sleep & Recovery
✔︎ Even a few beers or wines can worsen our sleep depth and quality
✔︎ Heart rate and nervous system activity are impacted and therefore recovery is damaged
✔︎ For most alcohol doesn’t equate to a warm, bath and early night.
(Like when you’re so BIG & STRONG that you smash the champagne glass….gains)
….Sorry about that.
It’s time for another Venn diagram. You love them really!
This is what we call the consistency funnel and again, serves as a backbone within our coaching programs. I find it helps to explain concepts like this visually.
You’re probably already familiar with this BUT what we’re saying here is that in order to achieve success in any fitness pursuit we need to apply consistency to the basic stuff.
We can fuss and faff over the details all we want but these three key things are what ACTUALLY drives progress.
As one of our favourite lifters Marc Keys describes the order of importance…
- Calories, in line with our goal. EVERY FUCKING DAY.
- Planned training volume completed. EVERY FUCKING WEEK.
- Over 35 hours of sleep. EVERY….you get the picture.
So, we need to view alcohol through this lens and yep…it makes EVERY SINGLE ONE of the above more difficult to achieve.
What this says in short is that if we drink such that we violate:
- Our weekly total calories
- Our weekly total training volume
- Our weekly total sleep volume
- To the extent that we start to touch on levels that may begin to affect testosterone
The alcohol is a bad idea.
Yep, sorry to be the bearer of bad news but if you’re going your calorie targets by 1000s each week because you can’t control your marginal propensity for PINTS, you’ll probably get fat…
…don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Weekly total calories
Things are pretty simple here. There are 2 potentials scenarios
- We work alcohol into our existing daily calories
- We accept that we’re likely to overshoot calories on the day we drink and so account for it across a week or month.
Define your goal & current reality
This is something we discussed on our podcast with Menno Henselsmans and I absolutely LOVE the clarity it provides. A little bit of honesty here can really shed some light on your reality too.
Why exactly is it that you drink?
- Some people just bloody love getting wrecked and smashing pints (LADS LADS LADS).
- Some people drink to ease social anxiety.
- Some people drink to squash criticism and social pressure, just trying to fit in.
(I’m sure there are other reasons)
If we aren’t really clear on what it is we’re actually trying to get out of drinking then we aren’t able to plan effectively for it.
1) What effect are you looking for?
If you’re looking to get really drunk, just be honest. Maybe you’re just looking to fit in with your friends and you absolutely HATE hangovers? Both are fine, all that matters is that you’re honest with yourself.
2) How often & HOW MUCH do you currently drink?
This is probably going to be pretty painful for some of you. It requires that you take a very, very honest look at your current situation and examine how much you’re currently drinking, and how often. Again, if you’re downing a bottle of wine every night after work, STOP FUCKING LYING about it!
Get crystal clear on your current reality and why you drink.
Why does this matter? Simply because the more we change from your norm right out of the gate, the harder it will be to stick to.
There’s a concept in Economics known as Pareto Optimality. In short, what is says is that we should seek to optimise a situation and get the best scenario for all parties without damaging the satisfaction of or taking away from others.
As you can maybe see, we can easily apply this here. First, as above, we need your goal, your reason for drinking.
The “Pareto Dose” is simply the smallest amount of alcohol that you can drink without detracting from anything in the consistency funnel while also getting what you want out of the experience.
This means if your goal is to get absolutely Colonel Mustard, in the drawing room with the candelabra…BATTERED…then we need to figure out if that is actually possible at the frequency you require without damaging your goals.
Rather than going over every possible scenario, I’ll go over what I do so that you hopefully get an idea of what I mean.
– I typically drink once every 2 weeks and rarely in between.
– When I do drink, it’s in a social context and usually involves bars/pubs/clubs with friends.
– I definitely drink to the point of feeling drunk and feeling the effects
- I experience a positive effect from drinking in a social context and as long as I don’t overdo it, I’m able to do this without damaging my results.
- I’ve found after some experimentation that I need to allow around 1000 kcal in my day to be able to balance out the above.
This allows me 1-2 beers of choosing and then gin and slimline tonic of diet coke and spirit. It means that by the end of the evening I’m not drunk to the point of nausea, I’m still within my calorie limits and it won’t impact my training if I had to train the next day.
This is purely based on tastes and preferences and I’ve arrived at it through some trial and error.
Of course, if you just prefer the odd drink here and there with dinner or the odd whiskey night-cap, the strategies below likely won’t be needed.
Sinks & Smoothing
If you’re familiar with flexible dieting, this sort of approach won’t be new to you, it’s the main method we use to allow our clients to fit alcohol into their day.
Nothing to do with plumbing. A sink is where we estimate drinking far enough in advance to be able to prepare for it.
Because we know our Pareto dose, we’re able to predict how many calories we need on the day of drinking to be able to drink and enjoy ourselves.
I usually suggest that if your Pareto dose exceeds 25% of 1 normal day’s calorie intake to smooth it over a full week if possible. If that’s not possible, at least 3 days. We want to avoid the scenario where you’re having to try to cut your calories on a given day by 25% or more. Thisis almost guaranteed to drop adherence at some point.
Typically, I suggest taking these calories from whichever provides a greater % of your calorie allotment, carbs or fats.
We use this when we haven’t been able to prepare in advance and essentially it is the mirrored reverse of the sink approach.
Let’s say we get asked out for some drinks on a Friday after work that we weren’t expecting. We’d still try to aim for the Pareto dose as much as possible but then we’d adjust retrospectively, dropping calories from Saturday-X, depending on how much we went over our calories by.
Tracking Alcohol & The Day of Drinking
A quick google search will bring up a LOAD of different approaches for managing alcohol in your diet.
- Some people recommend that you treat alcohol differently due to the thermic effect of metabolism.
- Some people recommend that you convert alcohol calories into carbs.
- Some people recommend that you convert alcohol calories into fats.
Remember, whatever we decide to do, it needs to be simple otherwise we won’t follow it. Best of luck trying to calculate how many grams of carbs your wine translates into when you’re onto the second bottle…
We suggest (as you may expect) the simplest approach possible that is in keeping with the above approach.
Protein & Calories
We know from the above that calorie balance is the primary aspect of our diet that we need to manage. Assuming that we’re engaged in some kind of weight training and we care about muscle mass (why the hell are you here if not?) then we should probably also care about protein too.
Now, it’s FAR beyond the scope of this article to explain how much protein may or may not be optimal. If you care about that you can read more here and here.
Let’s conclude that we should probably be aiming for around1.8g/kg as much as possible as this generally the agreed upon minimum for protein intake.
So, calculate what that number is for you and keep it in mind, that’s your minimum protein intake.
Next, we need to care about calories and also how we’re going to actually key in the calories from alcohol.
This part is super simple.
Assuming that you’re using MyFitnessPal (you bloody well should be) then you’ll be able to find a calorie entry for your favourite tipple in there.
Now, a word of warning. MyFitnessPal is a user populated database and as a result, some people seem to think that wine as 1 kcal/bottle and other fantastical, unrealistic assumptions.
SO, if you’re going to use another entry put it through the following bullshit filtration process:
A) Check it LOOKS sensible.
You’d expect a bottle of beer to be 100-400kcal, a glass of wine to be 100+kcal and spirits to be around 100 kcal depending on the mixer.
If you start seeing entries under 100 kcal or over 1000 kcal, you may want to seek another entry.
B) Use Averages
You may find 10+ entries for a bottle of Stella and they may all differ in some degree. Here, it’s best to just rely on a rough average calculation and enter it manually OR just go for an entry that lies roughly between the available entries.
C) If in doubt, ask Google
If you’re not sure, you can typically find calorie content on the company’s website with a quick google.
The reason we focus on only calories and protein on days we drink is that when you enter an alcoholic drink into MyFitnessPal you’ll typically see (for sake of simple example):
For those with an ounce of nutrition knowledge, you’ll know that 1g protein contains 4 kcal so therefore 20g carbs should provide 80 kcal?….
OH MY GOD! WHAT IS THIS WITCHCRAFT!?!
All we’re seeing here is the calorie contribution from the alcohol in the drink and while this isn’t an exact science, as long as we’re consistent, this gives us something to work with.
This does however make things stupid simple.
At the end of the day, we want to have hit the calorie target for the day and hit our protein target.
Planning & managing your day
Now we’ve reduced this down to two simple goals it makes planning the day quite a bit easier and if you’ve followed everything so far,on the day of drinking should be a doddle!
- You should have a rough idea of your “pareto dose” and therefore a general idea of how much you plan to drink to get the desired benefit.
- If your Pareto dose will push you over your daily calories, hopefully you’ve had time to create a calorie sink, if not you’ll be able to plan calorie smoothing over the next few days.
- You can pre-enter a ball park entry of your drinks at the start of the day. This doesn’t have to be precise but it should be your best guess, we can revisit it tomorrow as no one wants to have to track drinks while they’re out.
- This gives you remaining calories to play with and you ensure that within this remaining balance, you hit your protein intake for the day.
- While you’re out, keep your planned intake in mind as much as you possibly can.
- The following morning, if you’re aware that you really overdid it, do your best to guess how much you went over by and follow the smoothing approach.
- Worst case scenario, make a small arbitrary adjustment for 1-2 days.
Of course, we also need to remember that AFTER drinking we’re likely to feel quite hungry. Personally, I’ll down a few glasses of water and go to bed but if this is something you struggle with, factor in some extra calories for food before bed too.
2) Weekly Training Volume
Sing like no one is listening. Dance like nobody’s watching. Drink like you’ve got to train in the morning.
Back when I worked with Eric Helms (he coached both of us for 3+ years) I can clearly remember alcohol management being one of the biggest potential threats to success.
At the time, I was preparing for a string of Powerlifting meets while also working for a large accountancy firm and the social demands were even more so than at university!
I know, who said being an adult was tough!?
I was already managing calories in the above way from bits I’d read and learned from various sources and it never affected weight or weigh ins at all.
What Eric (understandably) was most concerned about was it affecting my training and recovery as both are pretty damned important for a Powerlifter.
The rule he gave me, especially close to competition was this:
When you wake up the morning after, pretend you have amnesia and can’t remember the past 7 days of your life, you shouldn’t be able to say for sure from your symptoms and feelings whether or not you were drinking last night.
In other words, when you’re drinking you should always be imagining that you have to squat in the morning.
While its far less precise and measurable than the other advice I’ve given above, this is probably the best thematic way of managing alcohol when it comes to training. Ultimately, if you’re always keeping your training at the forefront of your mind, alcohol won’t ever even get the chance to damage your progress.
Day before or day after?
We know from the above that if drinking alcohol means we skip a session, that’s a fundamental breakdown of the laws that govern our progress.
However, what do we do if we arrive in situation whereby we plan to drink the night before a planned training session, what’s the best way to deal with it?
From the above data, we know that alcohol prior to exercise has little to no impact on performance and we know that alcohol after exercise can reduce our muscle protein synthesis, therefore recovery.
So, should we train BEFORE we drink or AFTER?
(And no, training WHILE drinking isn’t an option!)
Well, the answer is…….It depends.
There are obvious consequences to alcohol consumption that WOULD impact the quality of our training the following day that the above study has ignored:
– Reduced motor control and co-ordination (aka still drunk)
– Less motivation and resilience (aka feeling bloody awful)
– Increased injury risk
Seems to be a pretty strong argument for training the day before, right? Well….we have to consider if we train and THEN drink:
– Less calories from protein and carbohydrates to fuel and support training
– Less sleep duration and quality following the training session
– Protein synthesis impact
– Potential for DOMS from the session to be worse and last longer
However, to me there is one argument that sticks out above the others and that is the potential and risk of injury.
If we boil success in anything gym related down to consistency then we can say that the person who can continue to train for their goal over the longest period is likely to experience the best results.
Nothing kills consistency like a nice, juicy injury!
On balance, training AFTER a night or day of drinking significantly increases your risk of injury and therefore, damaging your progress WAY beyond just the next 24-48 hours.
So, my advice is where possible to train the day before and accept that you’re maybe going to need an extra rest day following the session to turn the ship around.
Yes, protein synthesis is lower over the subsequent day but in the context of the bigger picture, we won’t notice this.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
Even if we set out with the best intentions of never training after drinking, we still need to respect the cardinal rules as much as possible.
In other words, we should still be trying to get all out our training volume in over the course of a week.
So, what can we do to still do this while managing and mitigating the increased injury risk? Here are a few things:
3) Weekly Sleep Volume
There are two sides to this part of the equation and it ultimately depends on what you also get up to while drinking.
If your idea of drinking involves a few civilised wines with dinner, then while we do still need to consider sleep, it likely won’t be the make or break factor in whether or not alcohol affects your progress and results.
If you often don’t end up hitting the hay until 5am or later (and then potentially have “extra-curricular” activities planned) then with alcohol also comes the potential for a huge hit to sleep volume and quality.
Remember, from the above, we know that even fairly moderate doses of alcohol impact your sleep. So, in order to manage this, we usually rely on a few different rules and options.
Manage the dose
Going off the 1g/kg rule mentioned above, the easiest way to mitigate damage here is just to consume LESS than whatever this amount is for you. I know, I know this was such a boring suggestion that realistically no one is going to stick to. Not sure why I bothered.
Sorry about that, not sure what came over me.
Manage the timings
Whenever a client has issues with sleep one of the first things I suggest is to ritualise and normalise their wake time.
When you wake up at the same time every day…YES…EVERY day, there is just something magical that seems to happen to your days and nights.
- You start to feel sleepy at the same time in the evening and falling asleep is much easier.
- You tend to start feeling hungry at the same time of the day.
- Your performance when training is more reliable.
Honestly, when compared to a sporadic sleep schedule, making a ritual the time you wake up can create night and day results.
Now, of course, alcohol does pose quite a threat to this. We get in at 3am Saturday night, don’t wake up until gone midday on Sunday and then try to get to bed by 11pm for our normal Monday morning routine again…it isn’t going to happen.
This can obviously then create a cascade effect where our sleep is out of whack for the rest of the week…all because of a few beers!
So, I always suggest that whether you went to bed at 3am or 11pm, wake up at your normal wake time.
“But what about my 49 total hours of sleep?!”, I hear you cry.
Well there are two options for that:
1) If you REALLY overdid it, you can catch up with a 30-90-minute nap during the day
Or, my preferred option:
2) Go to bed earlier the next night, MUCH earlier if you need to.
This way, the damage is limited to one day and the rest of the week is left untouched. Yes, the day after drinking will be a bit of a write off but we do have to pay the piper at some point for our debauchery!
Manage the quality
We know that alcohol damages sleep depth and quality from the data. Unfortunately, aside from standard sleep hygiene advice (dark cold room, relax before bed etc) there isn’t all that much we can do to mitigate and remove the downsides here, just do your best to eliminate the obvious risk factors for a bad night’s sleep:
Manage the averages
Really, this is the key take-away point from the whole article but it applies here also. , training, motivation and mood.
If, as a result of a night on the tiles we start averaging under 7 hours per night, this WILL impact how you feel and perform. So, it goes without saying that if you are planning to sleep less one evening as a result of alcohol, we need to catch this up throughout the week either through planned naps or early nights. There’s no sexy fix to this, just the reality that we need a certain amount of sleep.
Well, what a journey! Now you know what effects alcohol can have on your diet, training and recovery and have some concrete strategies to deal with them!