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Alcohol and the Athlete

Athletes - just like anybody else - can experience the adverse effects of alcohol. Being fit is no protection from the risks of drinking too much!

But what effect does alcohol have on athletic performance if you drink just moderately?

Drinking alcohol will:

-increase your risk of dehydration as alcohol has a diuretic effect, in other words it increases urine output
-give you problems with body heat regulation - particularly important for endurance athletes
-reduce your blood sugar levels so your energy levels are lowered; this can be a problem with longer periods of exercise
-impair your reaction times, co-ordination and balance
-reduce your endurance, strength and speed

-increase your risk of injury

It seems clear that drinking alcohol or being under the influence of alcohol while training or competing is going to reduce your performance. What's more, these effects start occurring even when just small amounts of alcohol are drunk.

Alcohol and your weight
Alcohol is very high in calories. In fact, it is second only to fat in terms of calorific content per gram. As a result, drinking excess alcohol is often associated with weight gain.

Paradoxically, although alcohol is high in calories, it is not a good source of energy for an athlete. This is because the body can only metabolise alcohol at a fixed rate. Broadly speaking, this is about one unit (8 grams) per hour. So, when there is a sharp increase in energy demand (for example when exercising) alcohol metabolism is unable to meet it, making alcohol useless as an energy source to the athlete.

Furthermore, alcohol itself is not a good nutrient because it does not supply any vitamins or minerals. It is true that the liquid in which the alcohol is floating (namely the whole drink) may contain some nutrients. However, one would have to have quite a few drinks in order to match the nutrient content of food. In fact, in the long term, a high alcohol intake can impair the body's absorption of nutrients from food and bring about vitamin deficiencies - particularly the B group of vitamins.

So, from a body weight and nutritional view point, alcohol will not help your athletic performance and may well have a negative effect.

Sensible Drinking: The Report of an Inter-Departmental Working Group, Department of Health, December 1995:10.20

Resources for Today's Endurance Athletes ®

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