Alcohol Effects on Cycling Performance

I hate to have to write this blog… really I do.  I’m British so it goes without saying that drinking beer is in my genes, and I do like a glass of wine with dinner.  However, since I’m committed to this crazy Everest Challenge Race there are some changes I have to make.

95% of the time I stick to a pretty healthy wholesome diet (see picture of our fridge – no this wasn’t staged, this really is a common sight in our kitchen) so I don’t have too many diet changes I can make.  But,  I am unburying my head from the sand in terms of what I already know about how alcohol affects us as cyclists and hoping that by actually writing it down on my blog it may give me some willpower to abstain most of the time (I’m only human after all).

So if you want to remain in blissful ignorance and enjoy a bottle of wine this evening, hit the ← button now.  If you want to really know what a few too many glasses of wine / beer does to your cycling performance here’s a quick summary.

“I’m carb loading” is a joke I often hear (and use!) when reaching for that frosty glass of beer.  However deep down we all know this isn’t the truth and while there are energy calories in alcohol (a whole 7Kcal/g versus 9Kcal/g in fat and 4Kcal/g in carbohydrates) alcohol is pretty useless as a short term energy source, in addition to the fact that it is devoid of any nutrients.

So, let’s look at this simplified explanation of what happens when you drink a few beers:

1. Toxin alert!: Most of the alcohol in the beer heads into your bloodstream and is immediately treated as a toxin by your body.   Where do toxins end up?  In the liver!

2. Feeling tipsy?: The liver gets to work straight away metabolizing the alcohol using powerful enzymes, but there’s only so much enzyme capacity in there so any excess alcohol circulates your blood stream waiting for its time to come to be metabolized.   In the meantime it plays havoc with your heart, brain, other tissues and organs (legs muscles go a bit wobbly, brain a bit more relaxed, reaction time not so cat like… sound familiar??).

3. Glycogen replenishment halts: In addition to the alcohol consumed there’s also a good dose of carbohydrates in beer.  “No problem!  That’s my recovery fuel” I hear you say.  Sadly – no, it doesn’t work this way.   Since the liver enzymes are working at full speed to rid your body of the alcohol toxins they aren’t available to be used for normal energy metabolism functions and glucose conversion to glycogen grinds to a halt (glycogen being the stored form of glucose in your muscles).

4. Fat stores benefit though: In the same way that the body doesn’t like a heap of alcohol to be swimming around in your blood it also won’t tolerate a load of excess glucose in there either.  So, your body goes all out to lower the blood glucose levels too, but since the excess glucose can’t be metabolized into glycogen… where does it go? Fat stores I’m afraid!

5. Got the munchies?: Only once all the alcohol has been dealt with can your body return to normal and start slowly tapping into those fat stores and replenishing glycogen depleted muscles.  The body metabolizes alcohol at roughly 7g – 15g of alcohol / hour and a 12oz bottle of beer will have somewhere between 10g and 14g of alcohol in there.  That means if you have a few beers it could be 3-4 hours before your body can even start to deal with the carbohydrate you consumed in the beer and even longer before it gets around to dealing with that burrito that seemed like such a good idea afterwards.

6. Sleep patterns affected: The low blood glucose levels caused by the alcohol in your body can have a serious effect on sleep patterns too.  REM sleep is disturbed and this is the sleep cycle where you consolidate and commit to long-term memory everything that happened during the day.

7. Dehydration: Antidiuretic hormones which normally prevent too much urine being created are reduced in the body when you drink alcohol, the resulting effect being excess urine production, dehydration… and of course several trips to the bathroom in the night which compound your already disturbed sleep!

Dehydration continues well after alcohol consumption and since as little as a 2% decrease in body water weight can have a significant impact on performance this is certainly going affect your Strava time the following day.

8. Muscle growth is affected: Lack of sleep not only turns me into the human equivalent of a caged tiger being poked with a big stick but the double whammy here is that less sleep = less HGH being produced by the body.  What does HGH do – exactly what the name Human Growth Hormone suggests …. builds muscles. Reducing what is naturally produced in the body to build muscle is clearly a performance decreasing strategy.

9. Cortisol production increases: Cortisol (a useful ‘fight or flight’ hormone which increases with stress levels)  increases when you drink alcohol.  While you may be having a merry old time while you’re in the pub,  the aftermath on your system can be dramatic. Increased cortisol negatively affects testosterone levels and being in a prolonged and unnecessary state of “I’m ready to flee from an attacking rhinoceros” can’t be good for anyone.

10. Testosterone production is reduced: I’m a girl right?  Testosterone’s a guy issue!…. Sadly no this isn’t the case.  Us girls need it too and it’s important for muscle development.   Studies have shown that consuming alcohol leads to a dip in testosterone (i.e. post riding drinking could really affect that period of muscle growth after a training ride).

Oh dear, this really is kind of depressing isn’t it.  So, what’s the answer?  Never letting a drop pass my lips again? I have to admit, just writing this has certainly made me think twice about drinking, but at the same time I also know that life’s for having fun and sometimes the mood enhancing benefits of a few drinks with good friends can far outweigh the physical downsides.   I’m a great believer in ‘all things in moderation’ and while I can’t claim that drinking is going to improve performance most of us aren’t competing at a pro level and the odd drink or two isn’t going to ruin our lives.

So – my aim is this; to lighten up on my drinking by:

1. Avoiding unnecessary drinking e.g. the “it’s 6pm and a fancy a beer because the day ends in Y” type drinking.  Save it for memorable occasions.

2. Avoid the post ride beer situation (which is tough because sometimes after a long hot ride that’s the best tasting pint you’ve had in years)

3. If I’m going to drink, go for light beers or stick to gin and low cal tonic

4. BUT – remember that above all ‘life’s for living’ and if I choose to occasionally suffer a little the next day but as a result have a great night with some friends or open a nice bottle of wine with Rob then that’s ok once in a while.

I should also note here that there is research out there which puts a positive spin on drinking e.g. heart benefits of red wine, plus studies that suggest low quantity/high frequency drinking subjects are leaner than non drinkers.  However, I’m inclined to believe that anything that your body treats as a toxin really can’t be that good for you and I think I’d rather still consider the occasional beer / wine as a treat rather than nutritional must have.

This entry was posted in The Road to Everest Challenge Stage Race 2012, Weight Weight Don't Tell me and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Alcohol Effects on Cycling Performance

  1. molly says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article.
    Thanks for the information.

    Cheers! (no pun intended)


  2. Mark says:

    Great read!! Getting the balance is the trick… :-)

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