With Christmas approaching, many British weightlifters will be indulging in more than the usual amount of booze. Social drinking is so ingrained in British culture that it is no surprise that we all have some drinks from time to time but what effect does it have on training? Will a night out on the town rob us of our gains?
We all have to decide what we are prepared to sacrifice in order to make progress in our lifting. Obviously this decision is very different for an elite athlete compared to a recreational lifter but it’s still important for us all to be aware of how drinking is likely to effect our training.
We’re not going to be talking about the well known negative effects of drinking too much alcohol in the long term- we’re just focussed on the short term consequences of a drinking session on training.
It’s also important to recognise that social drinking, in moderation, can have a positive aspect. A bit of relaxation away from training can be important and many people do find that having a few drinks helps with that.
There is plenty of evidence that drinking more than a small amount of alcohol reduces muscle growth for a period afterwards. Without getting into the details of the science, it seems that alcohol in the body impacts the processes that our body uses to recover between training sessions. This is obviously not good if you are working hard on a training program to get stronger.
What counts as a small amount? Many of the studies have found that the biggest effects kick in when consuming around 0.5g to 1g of alcohol per kg of body weight (example study – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24748461). So, as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t drink more alcohol in grammes than your body weight in kg. Ideally, you want to limit yourself to around half of that.
Here’s a handy table showing some popular drinks and how much alcohol they contain:
|Drink||Alcohol Content (g)
|Beer (4%) - Pint||18
|Beer (5%) - Small bottle (330ml)||13
|Wine (12%) - Small glass (125ml)||14
|Wine (12%) - Medium glass (175ml)||20
|Wine (12%) - Large glass (250ml)||28
|Spirit (37.5%) - Single (25ml)||8
|Spirit (37.5%) - Double (50ml)||16
So, a lifter with a body weight of 90kg is going to start running into the effects seen in studies at around 3 pints while for a lifter weighing 65kg it will be 2 pints. Drinking twice that amount is going to put you in the zone where you experience strong negative effects. Watch out for large glasses of wine – even a couple of glasses are going to put smaller lifters into the zone where training will start to be impacted!
It is worth noting that everyone’s body is going to respond differently to alcohol, so the 1g / kg of body weight idea is not going to work perfectly for everyone. If you want to be sure, you will have to drink less or even avoid alcohol completely.
Studies have shown that the negative effects of alcohol can persist for up to 60 hours or more, with higher amounts of alcohol having longer lasting effects. Having said that, there is no evidence for infrequent drinking sessions having long term negative effects on training, so if you have a few days off over Christmas, drinking a bit more than recommended above is not going to ruin training for January.
Alcohol is a poison and your body treats it as such. That means that the body will use it ahead of other sources of calories in order to get it out of the body as quickly as possible. The problem here is not so much that the alcohol will get turned into fat (it’s possible but difficult) but rather that, while the body is busy with the alcohol, it is not using carbohydrates or fat as a fuel source. This is especially a problem if you eat high carb foods while drinking. Even worse are drinks that combine alcohol and sugars – the sugars will just get turned into fat as the alcohol is used.
If you want to minimise the carbs in what you drink, the website Get Drunk Not Fat provides details on the alcohol : calories ratio for many popular drinks.
A potentially bigger effect of alcohol on body fat is the tendency that many people have to eat more when they are drinking and to eat foods that are more likely to lead to gaining fat. This effect has been studied and is very real (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20851724), although it does not affect everyone to the same extent. One way to work around this effect is to have some high protein snacks available to eat during or after drinking, in order to avoid more high carb options.
In weightlifting, technique training is arguably even more important than muscle growth. Clearly, carrying a fuzzy head from the night before and being heavily dehydrated is not going to be a good recipe for training technical lifts.
The hangover from moderate drinking is only going to last a day so the best approach may be to plan social drinking when the following day is a rest day. If that is not possible then drinking needs to be limited and you need to drink plenty of water during the evening, before going to bed and in the morning. It is also a good idea to get some sodium and potassium in – rehydration treatments such as Dioralyte are an easy way to replace lost salts.
What to do?
So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? Obviously, the absolute best thing to do in terms of training and performance is to not drink at all but what can you do to ensure some social drinking doesn’t significant impact your lifting. Here’s our advice:
– Keep drinking in moderation, limited to the equivalent of 3 or 4 pints of beer or even less for smaller lifters
– Try to plan your socialising and training to avoid training the day after a drinking session
– Rehydrate after drinking with plenty of water and, if possible, rehydration salts
– Expect to gain some body fat if you drink with food and plan accordingly