As I sit at my PC to write this blog post (it’s the 19th of December), my wife is at her second Christmas Lunch of the festive season and I’m just about recovering from last week’s all-day-boozy-xmas-extravaganza. We also have several other family functions and various parties to attend (including a trip to Edinburgh) between now and the New Year.
There’s nothing unusual in this scenario, it’s what most people in predominantly Christian countries do at this time of year. But it got me thinking about the effects of alcohol on running performance – for training and racing. And how best to survive the silly-season without overdoing things and spoiling your race training. Especially for those that have a marathon early in the New Year.
We all need some respite and the ability to occasionally let our hair down (even baldies like me). Having a few drinks can certainly help you relax and forget your troubles. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that or drinking alcohol in general. Providing that it isn’t taken to the extremes. Which is a principle that can be applied to most things in life.
So what do you do when a ‘must attend booze-fest’ party is smack in the middle of your race training for a significant race – a major marathon or other challenging event? In particular if you’re also raising money for a charity and you want to do your best and don’t want to let anybody down. Plus you know that annoying friend, acquaintance or relative will be there – the one that’s always trying to ply you with copious amounts of grog-water and takes huge offence if you refuse.
The Bad Stuff
Before I give you my recommended tactics, first of all, let’s take a look at what the effects of alcohol consumption are on your body. So that you can make a reasoned judgement about whether or not you should be concerned about the potential impact on your training or not. In particular, let’s concentrate on the properties of consuming alcohol that might affect athletic performance:
- It’s a Diuretic which leads to Dehydration and that’s not good for anything and is a bad place to start if your going to get sweaty by running.
- Disturbed Sleep
- Reduced reaction times
- Increased heart rate
- Alcohol = ‘Empty Calories’ as it contains no micronutrients. Also because your body cannot store alcohol’s energy for later, it must be burnt off or expelled. So, your body will attempt to use the calories in the alcohol you consume immediately and the calories in anything else you eat at the same time will be excess to requirements and will most likely end up being converted to fat for later use.
- Interferes with key hormones – testosterone HGH and protein synthesis – the anabolic (body-building) elements. So repair after workouts will be delayed/negatively impacted.
- Keeps the liver very busy in processing the alcohol, so it can’t do the vital work of producing energy for working muscles or controlling blood sugar/insulin levels etc
- Excess Calories – alcohol reduces your ability to make ‘sensible’ decisions and so you’re more likely to throw caution to the wind when you’ve had a few. Plus it stimulates hunger and you may well snack like a demon on all the nibbles available at the party – leading to over consumption and potential weight gain.
- Could also interfere with body temp regulation during exercise – especially in cold conditions
The Good Stuff
It’s not all bad news. Alcohol does have some good points too:
- It can potentially reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol which could be beneficial for your heart. And could also help prevent the development of gallstones.
- In moderation it could help to increase insulin sensitivity, making it easier for your body to process sugars and reducing the overall risk of developing type ii diabetes.
Sensible alcohol consumption limits
I’m not even going to attempt to offer advice on safe alcohol consumption limits. Mainly because there generally is no real consensus amongst the experts and many countries have very different ‘guidelines‘. Also I’m very much of the opinion that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Because, people are all very different and have different physiologies and metabolisms. Those that drink regularly can ‘cope’ with much more alcohol than those that drink very little and infrequently – like me.
So my best advice in this regard is to ‘know your own limits’ and try as best you can to stick within them. No need to abstain completely. If you enjoy a drink, then have a drink. But be mindful of your training and racing plans and adjust your alcohol consumption to fit in with them as much as possible.
Specific Silly-Season Tactics:
- Treat the party a bit like a race or training session. Pace your drinking, like you would a marathon. Start slow and get slower. Or an interval session: intersperse alcoholic beverages and soft-drinks. Or a negative split – start with alcohol and finish on water. These tactics will also help keep you hydrated and avoid a severe hang-over in the morning.
- Get yourself an accountability buddy or someone/a group to take it in turns driving for. This is a tactic that I employ with my wife. I should add that this is out of practical necessity rather than the quest for my own athletic magnificence. We basically take it in turns to be the designated driver for our family group.
- Don’t arrive at the party too early. As the temptation will be to start drinking and consuming the nibbles from the get-go. The more time you have for this the more ‘empty’ calories and volume of alcohol you’re likely to guzzle.
- Try not to turn-up with an empty stomach. Eat a small ‘healthy meal or snack’ beforehand if possible. Something that is satisfying and nutritious/stacked with micro-nutrients. Doing this will reduce the chances of stuffing your face whilst there.
- Keep your training plan in view at home. Pin it on your wall/fridge/bedroom door/lavatory cistern or bathroom mirror – somewhere you will see it regularly and can be reminded of your training commitments
- Be flexible with your training plan and be prepared to move key workouts/runs about to avoid conflicts with ‘heavy’ partying days (running on a hangover is not fun). To be able to do this you need to have a good understanding of which runs are most important and which can be sacrificed with limited impact on your training. Incidentally this is exactly the information and advice that you get in any Running Directions Training Plan – whether it’s a Ready Made version or a Tailored Training Plan. Yes that is a bare-faced shameless plug. If I can’t do that on my own blog/website the world’s gone mad…
- Opt for ‘clear’ or non- coloured drinks like: Gin, Vodka, Tequila etc and go heavy on the ice. This is because these drinks – if they’re good quality (not the really cheap stuff) tend to have less ‘additives’ in them. Which will give your body less crap to process. You’ll obviously need to sip these rather than down them in one. That’s where the ice comes in, as it’s difficult to do that with a glass full of ice. Plus as it melts it will add to your water intake and help stave off dehydration.
There’s no need to give up the booze completely and you can even push-the-boat-out on occasion. Just make sure that you have enough time to recover before your next ‘core’ training session. Also be flexible with your training and swap and move training days around to accommodate your partying/celebrations. If you can’t avoid a training day directly after a party – then implement my tactics above. Reduce your alcohol consumption and make sure you don’t go to bed dehydrated. I will quite often down a pint or 2 of water before turning in after a party – just to make sure. This is less likely to be necessary if you’ve been following the ‘intervals’ tactic of interspersing soft/non-alcoholic drinks with your booze though.
If a party falls the day before a major race that you’ve been training hard for. Then if you want to do well, I suggest you cut right back and restrict your alcohol consumption to no more than a couple of beers or a glass of wine. Jump at the chance to be the designated driver – that should make you popular too.
Whatever you plans over the festive season, I hope you enjoy yourself and your running. We’ll catch up again in the New Year,