By Christie Aschwanden
From the February 2012 issue of Runner’s World
I stood at the end of a ridiculously grueling trail amid the red cliffs of Western Colorado. Around me, runners enjoyed various cold, locally brewed beers wrapped in neoprene sleeves emblazoned with a sketch of the mountain we’d just torn up and down and the words “I survived the Summit and Plummet.” It was not yet 11 a.m.; we’d just finished one of the hardest five-mile runs in North America. We’d earned those beers. At least, that’s what we told ourselves.
It’s a common ritual among my running buddies. We run, then we drink. And we’re not alone. The outfit that organized today’s informal run often congregates at Grand Junction’s Kannah Creek Brewing Company following its weekly trail runs. Paonia’s Elegantly Attired Running Ladies, my women’s group, meets every Friday evening for a run that finishes at Revolution Brewing. And then there’s the famous Hash House Harriers, with chapters around the world, which calls itself a drinking club with a running problem. Among runners, coffee is perhaps the only beverage more popular than beer.
My friends and I often joke that we’re carbo-loading when we split a six pack together, but once in a while I wake up groggy and wonder: Could my drinking habit be hurting my running?
Turns out the research on alcohol and exercise is as herky-jerky as our culture’s attitude toward the bottle. Most early studies investigated alcohol’s potential as a performance enhancer. It seems ridiculous now, but during the 1904 Olympic Marathon, U.S. gold medalist Thomas Hicks was given a mixture of brandy, strychnine, and egg whites in an effort to gain a competitive edge. Many coaches then believed alcohol boosted energy.
In more recent years, not surprisingly, that belief has been largely disproved. One study on sprint-and middle-distance runners, for example, found that at most distances the more alcohol the athletes had, the slower they ran. Still, another study on male cyclists found that drinking the equivalent of two shots of hard liquor one hour before exercising didn’t give athletes any distinct advantages, nor did it significantly harm heart rate, blood pressure, or oxygen uptake. Even a hangover doesn’t seem to diminish your aerobic capacity—it just makes you feel lousy, so you underperform. But at the same time, there’s evidence to suggest that drinking after a workout might spoil recovery of muscle damage and reduce the amount of energy stored in muscles.
So what was all this conflicting information really telling me? Being a former scientist, I had my own theories about how drinking and running mix, and I couldn’t resist putting them to the test. The nearby Colorado Mesa University had just opened the Monfort Family Human Performance Research Lab, a state-of-the-art exercise-science facility that seemed like the perfect venue to explore alcohol’s effects on running performance. My friend Gig Leadbetter, Ph.D., coaches the school’s cross-country team and is an exercise scientist at the Monfort Lab. He’s also a home brewer and winemaker and, without any arm-twisting, agreed to put together a study for Runner’s World.
He decided to test whether drinking beer immediately following a hard run would sap performance the next day. Since men and women metabolize alcohol differently, he opted to test both and look for gender differences as well—something previous studies didn’t examine. Part one of the experiment—the Beer Run—was a 45-minute, early evening run at an intensity that would require tapping into muscle-fuel stores, immediately followed by a serving of beer. Part two—the Exhaustion Run—would take place the next morning and provide a measure of the recovery. On this run, volunteers would run at 80 percent of their max for as long as they could tolerate.
Researchers tested the volunteers twice, using two unnamed beers and without divulging their alcoholic content. In Round One some runners consumed regular alcoholic beer—Fat Tire Amber Ale—while others had a nonalcoholic beer, O’Doul’s Amber. (In Round Two, the beer options were reversed.) One would expect runners to run out of gas faster the morning after their Fat Tire run than they did the morning after drinking the O’Doul’s. Real beer might also make the Exhaustion Run feel more difficult. Finally, real beer might alter the amounts of fat and carbohydrates our muscles burned for fuel.
CHEERS TO SCIENCE!
We’d recruited five men and five women—myself included—ranging in age from 29 to 43, all moderate drinkers (defined as drinking less than the recommended daily limits of two drinks per day for men, one for women) and who ran at least 35 miles per week. At the orientation a week before the first Beer Run, Leadbetter explained the study before serving us Fat Tire beers. He was trying to get us to about .07 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is below the legal limit for driving under the influence. The hope was to simulate a “normal” amount of beer a runner might drink after a race or workout.
To figure out how many beers equaled “normal,” Leadbetter started the orientation with the government’s alcohol impairment chart, which estimates blood alcohol levels using body weight and alcohol percentages. Over the course of the next hour, everyone drank what the chart predicted would amount to .07 percent BAC. Because individual metabolism can vary, however, Leadbetter invited a couple of cops to give us Breathalyzer tests to ensure everyone got the right dose.
It’s a good thing he called for backup. The chart proved right on the mark for some, but was way off for others. It correctly predicted, for example, that 29-year-old Daniel Rohr needed to drink three and a half beers to reach .07. However, it led Bryan Whitt, a muscular 149 pounds, to drink almost three Fat Tires. As Whitt strode to the front of the room and faced the cop for his moment of truth, he didn’t seem at all impaired. But when he blew into the Breathalyzer, the number came up to .095 percent. The chart also wrongly limited a petite Cynthia Malleck to one 12-ounce beer, when she really needed almost two full bottles. By night’s end, as volunteers met their designated drivers, Leadbetter and his team knew exactly how much to pour.
Everyone reconvened the following Friday evening for the first Beer Run. We ran on treadmills for 45 minutes at a pace that felt steady, like tempo, but not overly strenuous. Then we gathered on the patio behind the lab and drank cold beer (or the placebo) and devoured plates of pasta and tomato sauce (carbs!).
The next morning, volunteers returned to the lab for the first Exhaustion Run, a task as grueling as it sounds. After we ran at a fast clip for as long as possible, researchers measured our heart rates and metabolic factors, such as oxygen consumption and carbon-dioxide production. Every three minutes, they asked us to rate how hard we were working.
My legs ached from the beginning, but I was determined to tough it out to 20 minutes. The treadmill’s timer was obscured, but by eyeballing a clock across the room, I could guesstimate my time. As I approached what I thought was 20 minutes, my will to continue faded and my perceived effort soared. My legs felt heavy and uncooperative, but was I truly exhausted? Well, no. My heart rate and breathing were fine. With Leadbetter and the other researchers cheering me on, I kept going until at 32 minutes and 23 seconds I finally called it quits.
I downed a bagel and orange juice from the breakfast buffet, and then went home to rest up for the next run. That evening, I hit the treadmill and the suds again. Though I’d spent the day napping, this second Beer Run felt harder than the first. By the time I stepped onto the treadmill for the second Exhaustion Run the next day, my legs and brain were shot. Still, I was determined to suffer as hard as I could in the name of science—this was no time to go soft. But I lasted only 27 minutes and 31 seconds, almost five minutes less than I had the day before.
GOOD FOR WOMEN, BAD FOR MEN?
Right after the second Exhaustion Run, I sat down with Leadbetter to review a few results. The first shock was personal: I had assumed my second Exhaustion Run was so poor because I had drunk the real beer the night before. Wrong! I had actually been served the placebo the previous evening. Surely my results were a fluke. Leadbetter sent all the data to Bob Pettitt, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and statistics expert at Minnesota State, Mankato.
The time differences between the beer and placebo Exhaustion Runs varied considerably from individual to individual. But when Pettitt averaged together the time differences between the two runs, they evened out to a big fat zero. Why? “The women did better after beer, but the men canceled it out by doing worse,” says Leadbetter. The five women ran an average of 22 percent longer the morning after drinking Fat Tire, while the men ran 21 percent shorter.
Pettitt’s analysis showed that this gender difference was statistically significant. However, “concluding gender differences based on 10 subjects is a big leap,” he says. Leadbetter agrees, which is why he’s spent recent months studying a larger group of runners. “Obviously, women use and metabolize fuel sources differently than men,” says Leadbetter. “If we find the same effect in [later] studies, then it will be really exciting.”
Ratings of perceived exertion, on the other hand, showed no significant difference between the trials, implying that the runs didn’t feel any easier or harder after real beer versus placebo beer.
If moderate drinking has a negative impact on performance, it seems to be a modest one, says Leadbetter. But even without a definitive answer, the results offer some assurance to beer drinkers. For those who are running for pleasure, any effect is probably no big deal, he says. On the other hand, if beer turns out to help women and hurt men like this study implies, even a single percentage point difference could mean the difference between a merely solid run and a PR.
TO DRINK, OR NOT TO DRINK
Afterward, I called some of the volunteers to get their takes on their results. Daniel Rohr ran about 13 percent longer the morning after drinking O’Doul’s, but says he felt similar during both trials. “I actually slept better the night after I drank the alcohol,” he says. A few weeks after the study, he competed in the Warrior Dash, a race that involved an obstacle course and free beer at the finish.
Trail runner Cynthia Malleck ran 44 percent longer on her real beer Exhaustion Run than she did after drinking the placebo, but she attributes the difference to fatigue. Malleck received the real beer the first day, and by the time the second Exhaustion Run came around, she was toast. “As I was getting on that treadmill, I thought, I have to do this again?”
But Karah Levely-Rinaldi received the real deal on the second trial and posted her longest run to exhaustion the next morning. She wasn’t surprised she’d lasted 4.5 minutes longer after drinking the Fat Tire, compared with the O’Doul’s. Last fall, she set a half-marathon PR (1:36) the morning after a three-margarita dinner. “Alcohol doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on my performance,” the mother of four says nonchalantly.
Larry Brede quit sooner on the run to exhaustion the morning after the Fat Tire, but he’s not so sure it was because of the alcohol. (He had to drink four beers within the allotted hour to reach his BAC.) “I’d had a long day at work when I had the beer,” he says. “I was overall more tired.”
As for me, I wasn’t ready to give up on my theory, so I decided to jump off the wagon for a month. In spite of my results, I was still pretty sure that without a drop of beer or wine, I’d run faster, sleep better, and maybe even lose some weight. Instead, my speed stayed the same, I still tossed and turned at night, and I didn’t lose a pound. So much for the beer gut!
The outcome of my monthlong dry run didn’t surprise Brede. A few years back, he gave up alcohol for four months while attempting to qualify for Boston. “I’d run a 3:28, and I needed to get under 3:10,” he says. “I ended up running a 3:25, and I decided it wasn’t worth it.” Eight months later, after resuming his beer drinking, he ran a 3:08. “I believe drinking is pretty independent of how well you’re trained and how well you’re eating.”
I agree. While I was disappointed to reap no benefits from giving up alcohol, the project proved that my drinking wasn’t causing me harm. I’d answered my question, and that’s worth celebrating.
Good old H2O tops readers’ list of favorite drinks to down after a race or hard workout, according to the nearly 5,000 respondents of a recent runnersworld.com survey.
- Water 31%
- Chocolate milk 26%
- Sports drinks 20%
- Beer 15%
- Other 5%
- Juice 2%
- Wine 1%
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