If you’re doing dry January, now is generally the point when you find yourself casting around for any reason to keep going. For today, let it be this: avoiding alcohol is unequivocally a good thing when it comes to your health and allows your body to reap all possible rewards of each workout you do. Ditch the booze, and you’ll notice better performance and a more enjoyable workout all around.
Here, some expert insights into how alcohol affects our workouts.
When your skin is akin to the Sahara, you know that last night’s mojitos are catching up with you. “Alcohol is a diuretic and drains moisture from the body,” says Caroline Wilson, nutritionist at health and nutrition brand Kitchenistic, adding that 90 percent of hangover symptoms present as a direct result of dehydration. Water is key for keeping our bodies in healthy working order—that’s not breaking news—but it also helps to regulate its temperature, which can make exercise tricky if we are dehydrated.
“If alcohol is in your system, your heart rate will increase faster than usual, and your body’s temperature will significantly rise, making exercise uncomfortable. You’ll also sweat more than you’re used to, which will dehydrate your body further,” points out Wilson. If you are drinking, try and alternate your alcoholic drink with a glass of water, which won’t stop dehydration but will help to ease it.
Lactic acid, the culprit behind cramps, builds up when we drink alcohol, which means that we’re far more likely to experience more painful moments during our workouts when hungover—and let’s face it, they can be painful enough as it is. “Other inevitabilities are muscle fatigue and a lack of growth hormones, which are vital for both building muscle and repairing it,” says Wilson. “If you consistently drink, your recovery time post-workout will be a long one, and it will be very difficult to build muscle in general.”
While minimal drinking may not impact how you exercise the next day, it has been shown to impact your performance while exercising—so you’ll find it harder and won’t be as satisfied afterward. One study showed that having a hangover can reduce your aerobic performance by 11.4 percent the next day.
“Alcohol is often laden with sugar, and when a foodstuff contains such a high glycaemic load, it rapidly turns into glucose once fully digested,” says Wilson. This sudden spike means the body suffers inflammation, which can lead to water retention, bloating, and fatigue as it drops again— none of which make for an easy workout session. “My recommendation is to avoid wines, cocktails, or drinks with syrups if you’re planning to exercise in the days after drinking—they are full of sugar and will greatly affect your workout.”
A Reduced Metabolism
Thanks to the stress alcohol causes the digestive system, the stomach and the intestines become lazy. “As digestive secretions slack, the rate at which the body absorbs essential nutrients also decreases, which causes the metabolism to slow.” Wilson recommends opting for food high in nutrients (such as nuts and dark green vegetables) pre-alcohol, to help the digestive system function at its best—it will help limit the effects on the metabolism.
The day after a few drinks often comes with a barrage of cravings for fatty foods. “Alcohol encourages a chemical in the brain called galanin to surge, which causes us to crave foods that are rich in fats.” That feeling of sluggishness and a diet devoid of nutrients means our bodies aren’t fuelled in the right way, and exercise will be tough.