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  Latest update: 2/6/2023

Beer's impact on athletic performance.

In the 1980s, there was a flurry of interest in beer (with alcohol) for marathon training and as a Caloric fluid replacement during the run. It was speculated that the alcohol provided more Calories (7 calories per gram of alcohol versus 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates), and as it was metabolized via an alternate (to carbohydrates) pathway it would give the athlete an extra energy boost. But the fad died out. Presumably alcohol didn't provide a performance edge, and the negative effects of alcohol (dehydrating effect, impact on coordination) outweighed the small energy benefits.

Alcohol decreases the body's production of anti-diuretic hormone, important for fluid control. ADH works in the kidneys to increease water reabsorption as urine is formed. With less anti-diuretic hormone available, the body loses more fluid than normal. If you drink 200 ml of beer (5 % alcohol) you don't just urinate 200 ml of water per serving, you actually urinate 320 ml of water, a negative 120 ml in the fluid balance column. Link to reference.

Then there is beers effect on coordination. In this study participants replaced their sweat losses with beer versus water. They drank an average of 1.6 liters over 1 hour post exercise. Now this was a fair amount of beer as a 12 ounce beer is about 1/3 of a liter. And it did produce the expected decrease in balance and co-ordination with a blood alcohol above the legal limit for driving (0.8%). As few as 2 beers will lead to a measurable loss of judgment, a decreased ability to rapidly track a moving target and a reduced multitasking ability (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

There are other potentially negative impacts of alcohol (I couldn't find any data on these) such as its negative impact on immuno-endocrine function, protein synthesis (thus impaired recovery from skeletal muscle injury), and a lower rate of muscle glycogen replacement.

So a pre ride, or rest stop beer, doesn't make any performance sense. But a single celebratory alcoholic beer is not going to be a big problem for any athlete. (as long as you take in additional fluids, and a few pretzels, to counteract the dehydrating effects).

How about non alcoholic beer? This article suggests non alcoholic beer may have given the German athletes at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea a slight edge. Taste fatigue with sports drinks occurs. Train frequently and you are soon looking for a new sports bar or new snack. Add in a cultural bias towards beer (the German factor) and non alcoholic beer seems an attractive option. Is it?

Pre race hydration with non alcoholic beer had no effect on performance. And did a better job than water alone in maintaining an athlete's electrolyte balance. This suggested it might make a good on-the-bike fluid/Calorie replacement, if you had an easy way to carry and refill your water bottle. The Calories are there - 130 per 12 ounces of non alcoholic beer which compares favorably to a sports drink such as Accelerade (120 Calories per 12 ounces) or Coke (150 Calories per 12 ounces) and definitely better than Gatorade (which is focused on fluid replacement) at 36 Calories per 12 ounces.

When you measure blood parameters of oxidative stress, non alcoholic beers are more effective than conventional beer in... "preventing oxidative stress (lower lipid and protein oxidation), preserving the endothelial function (lower endothelial dysfunction) and inhibiting thrombogenic activity (lowered oxidized LDL)." And this real life study of marathon runners measured decreased post race blood work inflammatory numbers which, it then suggested, explained a 3 fold decrease in upper respiratory tract infections in the 2 weeks after the marathon.

What are the take aways for me?


Now we have supplemented beers. Are these "performance beers" the new sports drink? An interesting idea I first ran across in 2021. Add electrolytes and berries to beer to aid in recovery - providing anti oxidants and minimizing the risk of dehydration. But is it true?? Can you have your alcohol AND the benefits of Gatorade or other sports recovery drinks? Runner's World seems to have joined the marketing team.

Although it nice to think you can have it all - a beer with benefits - the truth is closer to what you will read here. All alcohol is dehydrating. A lower concentration of alcohol is less dehydrating. But you cannot counteract the dehydration effect unless you drink a few glasses of water with each beer.

To paraphrase: Just adding unusual "natural" ingredients and electrolytes doesn't tell us that it is bioavailable or what it actually does for the athlete or active individual?

Much of this is a marketing gimmick. Bottom line: If you want a beer, don't depend on secret additives to keep you from a scientifically sound post ride recovery program of food, electrolytes, and plain old water. Even better, consider one of the many non alcoholic beers after a ride and forget about trying to offset the harmful alcohol effects.

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

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