Should you abstain from alcohol before a race?

A few drinks before a big race is all part of the fun, right? Bad news party people, our resident coach Tom Craggs insists sobriety is vital for effective recovery and athletic performance.

Should you abstain from alcohol before a race?

Weeks of hard training and here we are, taper week. Time to kick back, ease off the training and settle those pre-race nerves in time honoured British fashion with a tipple or two. But is it a good idea?

As coaches we regularly meet runners who drink alcohol in their training and even in race week. This is quite normal but we are often asked what the effects of alcohol are in relation to training and racing.

The truth is we can’t really offer you many compelling reasons to hit the bottle in the final week. Having a drink will limit both your ability to recover – that is the point of the taper of course, and your ability to perform on the day.

Recovery

Most people will be aware that a few drinks might not be that conducive to a good run an hour to two down the line, but actually it’s the effects on your body’s ability to recover that is the key to pre-race sobriety. 

Exercise physiology is pretty clear on this. You get fitter when you recover from the training you do, not when you are actually training. One of the biggest differences between professional and elite athletes and the rest of us is that they recover better – as much focus goes into correct rest and nutrition as it does training and competing. Alcohol can limit your recovery in a number of ways.

  •  Alcohol can limit your ability to achieve deep sleep. This is the phase of your sleep when your body releases human growth hormone – which is a key part of healing and adapting during taper week. You may feel you drop off to sleep more easily after a glass or two of wine, but the truth is the quality of your sleep is significantly affected.
  • By modulating the immune system alcohol can reduce your ability to fight infection and ward off both minor and major illness. Safe to say if you want to avoid picking up a race week cold, dropping alcohol is a great place to start.
  • Alcohol has proven to diminish protein synthesis and limit your levels of human growth hormone. This is important as it reduces your ability to repair those damaged muscles and undermines your taper period.
  • Alcohol damages the cells lining the stomach and intestines which absorb some of the critical nutrients you need as a runner. Firstly B9 (folate) which vital for the growth of new cells, but also because alcohol can decrease your absorption of essential dietary fats calcium it can decrease your absorption of calcium and in turn reduce your bone health.

Performance

If the limits put on your recovery alone is not enough to consider backing off the bottle in taper week, then it’s worth considering some of the direct effects on your ability to perform on race day.

  • Drinking decreases the use of glucose and amino acids by your muscles. This adversely affects energy supply and impairs metabolic processes during exercise. Simply put your body is going to feel sluggish when you run…not what you want to feel when the gun goes!
  • Through inflammation of the pancreas, stomach and intestinal walls alcohol can halt the transportation of vital nutrients into the bloodstream for example folic acid (B1) and B12. These not only help break down the macro nutrients from the food you eat but also help to produce hemoglobin – the protein which builds red blood cells. By limiting your red blood cell production, we don’t get as much oxygenated blood to your muscles…shame about all that hard training then!
  • Alcohol is a diuretic which makes you will have to work even harder during your taper week and on race day to ensure you are well hydrated – something many runners struggle to do at the best of times.
  • A couple of calming drinks the night before the race will likely slow your mental and neuromuscular functions the next day, leading to a lack of sharpness and a sluggish feeling in your legs.

All told, having put in months of hard training it seems a bit silly to risk adapting and recovering well and holding yourself back on race day for the sake of a few missed drinks. There are very few benefits to drinking alcohol and a lot to potentially lose. Plus finding another excuse to a miss a night out and get a few more hours in bed in race week can’t ever be a bad thing! 

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