After all of the hard work and intense training leading up to an event, many an athlete will want to sink a celebratory post-workout beer. That alcoholic bevy is well deserved and recovery probably doesn’t even enter the mind after you’ve laid everything out on the line, but let’s take a look at the effects of alcohol and see if this is the best idea. (It’s beer, duh..of course it is)
How does exercise recovery work?
Before we discuss whether it benefits your recovery or not, let’s take a moment to understand the many different physiological and metabolic factors that come into play, including:
aka calories in and out. The body needs energy from calories to fuel its many functions. Think of it as a supply versus demand for energy. Calories that are burned during intense exercise need to be replaced to start the recovery process.
About 60% of the body is composed of water and this plays an important role in millions of metabolic functions. We can lose water through many means : sweat being one of them which also takes with it electrolytes – these both need to be replaced in order to maintain fluid balance. Hydration and electrolytes are especially important to recovery because the body needs enough water to help blood and nutrient circulation, waste removal, joint lubrication and keep your core temperature regular.
Electrolytes regulate how and where fluids are distributed throughout the body. Sodium and potassium balance in particular make sure water goes where it is supposed to (at a cellular level) and ensures your muscles and nerves are firing properly. As mentioned before, you’ll lose these through sweat and dehydration so make sure you keep yourself well topped up with water and/or electrolyte drink depending on the intensity of your exercise
Inflammation is something everyone will naturally get after a workout from the site of damage to start repair, but it can also mean muscle soreness after a tough workout. If inflammation remains too high after a session, you could impair the quality of future workouts and increase the risk of injury. Much of joint and tendon pain can be attributed to inflammation, though this usually points to something deeper being wrong and inflammation tends to be the symptom rather than cause. Either way, post-workout inflammation can be brought down to normal, through adequate sleep, stretching/mobility work and, probably most importantly, nutrition.
Would a post-workout beer help or hinder recovery?
Believe it or not, beer has some nutritional value in the form of antioxidants, B vitamins, electrolytes and carbohydrates. All of these attributes can play a role in recovery. Antioxidants help to reduce oxidative stress (which is induced by inflammation), B vitamins aid in metabolism functions, electrolytes assist in fluid balance and proper cell function, and carbohydrates replenish energy.
To be honest, this is also where the benefits of alcohol as a post-workout drink stop. Beer contains alcohol, obviously. That alcohol is what hinders recovery. The body has stores for carbs (muscle and liver), fat (fat cells) and a limited amount of storage for protein but alcohol is considered a toxin. The body will always prioritise removing toxins from the body before anything else and so, the recovery process from your workout is stopped in favour of alcohol being removed from your body. Protein synthesis is slowed, fat is stored in favour of removing alcohol from the body as are carbs. Alcohol can also cause dehydration by increasing the amount you need to pee. Another way it can slow exercise recovery is by impairing blood flow and absorption of other nutrients
Beer isn’t exactly a post-workout protein shake. But, come on, are you surprised? Who were you trying to kid?
The boring mans beer
If you really want to have a post-race beer, try non-alcoholic beer. Non-alcoholic beer begins as regular beer, but the alcohol is typically removed by heating it. Both types of beer have similar nutrient profiles, but non-alcoholic beer has about half the calories, potassium and fun (proven by science, obvz). Due to the lower amount of alcohol (typically about 0.5% alcohol by volume), non-alcoholic beer provides the benefits of beer without the potential for alcohols negative effects. (or the potential for a decent party)
Non-alcoholic beer has been studied as a recovery beverage, and it’s been found that it can aid in hydration and electrolyte balance while improving overall health for optimal recovery. For the science-minded among us, this is an obvious finding since we know it’s the alcohol in the beer that screws with our recovery.
Non-alcoholic beer may not sound very enticing, but research has found our biases against it might all be in our head (yeah, right). A 2016 study showed that pub-goers liked regular beer and non-alcoholic beer equally as long as it was all labeled as normal beer. Although, I’m sure after their 4th pint, these people may be wondering why their life hasn’t become infinitely better yet and change their mind about alcohol-free beer.
So, what’s a gym and beer lover to do?
While it may be beer blasphemy to say this, consider non-alcoholic beer after a big training sesh if it’s really that important to you. If you want the full experience, simply wait until the evening when your body has done the brunt of its recovering where alcohol won’t interfere. Obviously, this only works if your event was in the day time. Then you can party to your hearts content with the real stuff. Stay on a low fat diet that day to ensure there isn’t much fat circulating to be stored by your body when the alcohol hits your system and you’ll be golden. Be sure to keep drinking water, have a low-calorie protein snack before bed (chicken shish kebab anyone?) and avoid that hangover. In summary, a post-workout beer, or ten, is fine, so long as it is way post-workout rather than immediately after. Life is too short not to enjoy beer and gains together, after all.