After a sweaty, hard-fought workout, you might be looking forward to rewarding yourself with a night out on the town, or a glass (or two) of wine on the couch. But while one half of you is thinking, I deserve it!, the other half is feeling guilty about drinking after exercise — even if you're not exactly sure why it's a bad idea.
Your latter half is on the right track: Experts agree that following a workout with a few cold ones generally isn't a healthy habit, since it can delay your recovery and make injuries worse. But there's good news, too: There are several guidelines you can follow to imbibe more responsibly.
Here, we'll break down the effect alcohol has on your body after exercise, along with some expert tips on how to partake without totally ruining your progress.
Rehydrate with water and refuel with food after your workout before you consider drinking alcohol.
How Alcohol Affects Your Post-Workout Recovery
It increases your risk of dehydration. The biggest concern when it comes to drinking alcohol after exercise is dehydration. Like caffeine, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it encourages your body to release more fluids (aka it causes more trips to the restroom). This isn't ideal when you're trying to rehydrate after a workout.
"When we exercise, especially at higher intensities or in hot climates, we lose a large amount of fluid from sweating, have electrolyte depletions and can also have a reduction in blood volume as the body tries to cool off," explains Roger Adams, PhD, a Houston-based certified sports nutritionist and founder of Eat Right Fitness. It's important to restore these fluid levels post-workout, but drinking alcohol can delay that process.
Plus, "When your body is dehydrated, alcohol can also affect your brain function more profoundly, impairing judgment and contributing to unsafe behaviors," says Lev Kalika, DC, chiropractor and owner of New York Dynamic Neuromuscular Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy in New York City.
Your hydration is even more of a concern if you don't refuel with a meal or snack following a workout, says Kalika. "This would cause severe dehydration and electrolyte depletion, which can lead to serious medical conditions and even death."
It could make injuries worse. "Exercise causes metabolic changes in your blood, which remain balanced during exercise, but imbalanced during recovery," explains Lesley Bell, a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and brain health coach at Providence Saint John's Health Center's Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.
These changes can hinder your body's natural healing abilities, Bell says, like your blood's ability to clot. And drinking alcohol post-workout can make returning to normal a slower process, so any injuries sustained or aggravated during exercise — including simple bruises — will likely heal more slowly.
"Alcohol consumption post-exercise can also introduce additional swelling into the tissues, since it opens up blood vessels, which can make an injury worse," says Adams.
You may have a harder time building muscle. Alcohol can also slow down your body's repair process after a workout. "This is especially true in exercises that introduce a lot of muscle damage and soreness, like a resistance-training workout with lots of eccentric movements, running downhill or sprints," says Adams.
A small study published February 2014 in the journal PLOS One looked at three groups of participants who performed high-intensity weight training and aerobic exercise (i.e. a HIIT-type workout). Upon completion, one group ingested a protein shake, another ingested the protein shake and alcohol and the third group ingested carbohydrates and alcohol.
"Muscle recovery was most negatively impacted in the group that consumed carbohydrates and alcohol, suggesting that lack of muscle-building nutrients such as protein combined with alcohol leads to a delay in muscle recovery," explains Adams.
It can put a lot of stress on your body. Alcohol decreases cortical activity, or the parts of your brain responsible for movement, speech and decision-making, according to a March 2013 paper in the International Review of Neurobiology. That's not good news when your body is still a little off-kilter from your sweat session. "Your nervous system is already using considerable energy to deal with the stress your body just endured at the gym. By drinking post-workout, you are actually making it more difficult for your body to find balance at a cellular level," explains Bell. This, in turn, places even more stress on your body's metabolic and cardiovascular processes, which can interfere with healthy recovery.
"It's true that consuming alcohol in moderation has been proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but too much alcohol, especially in athletes, impairs neuromuscular actions and can ultimately reduce strength and performance."
Do Happy Hour the Right Way
If you do decide to drink alcohol after a workout, there are a few things you can do to lessen the negative effects, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Hydrate first. Before you drink alcohol, be sure to drink enough water to make up for the amount of fluid you lost through sweat. This requires some planning ahead. The Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association recommends drinking 16 to 20 ounces of water at least four hours before starting your workout, and then 8 to 12 ounces about 15 minutes before. Plus, you should be drinking 3 to 8 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise. And afterward, drink 16 to 24 ounces of water or sports beverage for every pound of body weight you lost during the workout.
In addition, aim to drink three times as much water as alcohol while you're imbibing.
Eat a nutritious meal post-workout. A meal or snack consisting of both carbohydrates and protein consumed shortly after your workout will help replenish the stored energy in your muscles. Snacking while drinking alcohol will also help slow its absorption, but Adams warns against picking at typical bar food. "Calories can add up fast, since these foods usually contain a lot of fat and carbs," he says.
Sip rather than gulp. When it comes to drinking, certified personal trainer Eric Fleishman recommends taking it slow. "Taking in a mouthful of booze will flood your system with sugar and mind-altering intoxicating properties," he says. So make a mental note to savor your sips.
Don't drink in excess. Like anything else, it's best to keep your drinking (especially when it's post-workout) to moderate levels. "It's true that consuming alcohol in moderation has been proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but too much alcohol, especially in athletes, impairs neuromuscular actions and [can] ultimately reduce strength and performance," warns Bell.
The Bottom Line
Boozing after a workout isn't something you should do regularly, since it can slow your recovery process, make injuries worse and leave you susceptible to dehydration, which can be dangerous. But if you plan ahead and take the time to replenish your body with the fluids and nutrients it needs first, you can lessen the negative effects of the occasional post-workout happy hour.
- Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute: "The Truth About Alcohol and Exercise"
- National Collegiate Athletic Association: "Alcohol and Athletic Performance"
- PLOS One: "Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training"
- National Institutes of Health: "Rethinking Drinking"
- International Review of Neurobiology: "Alcohol and the Prefrontal Cortex"
- Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association: "Hydration"