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Alcohol and Performance

by Joe Krita

It is obvious that alcohol adversely effects sports performance. It is up to you to decide if you care if it effects yours.

Sometimes we want to believe that something is good for us even when we know it's really not. Take alcohol, for instance. All the press about how a daily nip can prevent heart disease has convinced many people that it's beneficial overall. But as I'm learning during this month's One Small Change experiment in which I've significantly reduced my alcohol intake, there's a lot more to consider than just heart health. Athletes need to weigh the effects of alcohol on fitness and performance. And here, I'm sorry to say, the evidence is almost entirely negative.

Danielle LaFata, M.A., R.D., C.S.S.D., a performance nutritionist with Athletes' Performance in Phoenix, Arizona, recently prepared a report listing some ways in which alcohol can thwart training and competition. Keep in mind as you read this that she's not talking about alcoholics. Just one or two 12-ounce beers, 5 to 10 ounces of wine or 1 to 2 shots of hard liquor (mixed drinks) nightly can cause these effects, as can regularly binging on weekends. Here's the bar menu:

1. Interferes with deep, restorative REM sleep.
While alcohol can make you sleepy initially, it should never be used as a sedative because it disrupts your sleep cycles, especially REM. This stage is particularly important to athletes because it's when you consolidate and commit to long-term memory what you learned during the day. So if you've taken a golf lesson, for instance, getting good REM sleep will help ensure that your mind and muscles assimilate the new technique.

2. Wrings the body of water and nutrients.
You already know that alcohol is a potent diuretic and that without adequate fluid your system is like an engine without oil. But what you may not realize is that in all that pee are lots of water-soluble vitamins and minerals that your muscles need for balance and performance. For athletes, the dehydrating effects of alcohol carry a double punch.

3. Disrupts the muscle-building process.
Reaching for a beer to reward yourself after a hard workout is one of the dumbest things you can do if your goal is to add lean mass. Alcohol is a bully in the body. It pushes aside protein, carbohydrate and other nutrients, which muscles need for recovery and growth, as it demands to be metabolized first. It always takes precedence. This deprives your post-exercise body of what it needs most and, thereby, sabotages improvement.

4. Spikes the production of cortisol.
This is the body's stress hormone. Think of it as the alarm that triggers a gazillion little firemen to take off through your system. The longer these guys are on the scene, the more havoc they wreak, namely impairing thinking, raising blood pressure, decreasing bone density and muscle tissue, and increasing abdominal fat.

5. Depresses the immune system.
Alcohol and, subsequently, cortisol also handcuffs our body's T-cells, which are activated when germs, a virus or another invader enters the body. This means you're not only more likely to get sick and lose training time if you drink, but injuries will also take longer to heal.

6. Impairs reaction time long after consumption.
It takes roughly one hour for each drink to be metabolized and leave your system. But since you're also becoming dehydrated, losing nutrients, interfering with muscle-protein synthesis, disrupting sleep and doing everything else we mentioned, your body will be hung over long after the buzz fades and the cobwebs in your head clear. One study out of New Zealand detected negative performance effects up to 60 hours post-binge.

So what does all this mean? Have we quaffed our last Coors? As LaFata points out, it really comes down to how serious you are about seeing results from your training. If you have a big race coming up, then it's probably smart to avoid drinking 48 hours prior. If your goal is to lose weight, pack on muscle and finally put an end to people offering you part-time Santa jobs, then it's probably wise to stop rewarding yourself with hi-balls post-exercise. Instead, rehydrate and refuel first. Then, later that night, if you want to toast your progress, do so in moderation, if at all.

Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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