If you head to a football game in the United States, you’ll often see people in the parking lot with their tailgates down, grilling food and drinking beer.
But diehard fans aren’t the only ones who celebrate sporting events with alcohol.
It’s common to see rugby or soccer players toasting their victory — or trying to forget their defeat — at the bar or pub after a match.
Or weekend warriors guzzling a beer after a 10-kilometer run.
In some countries, being active and drinking alcohol go hand in hand.
In Wales, people who exercise regularly are more likely to drink in excess, compared to less active people, a recent survey shows.
The National Survey for Wales found that 58 percent of people who exercise at least three times a week drink within the recommended alcohol limits.
This is compared to 77 percent of people who didn’t exercise at all.
In the United States, research shows that college and university athletes consume more alcohol than nonathletes. Some studies found that up to 80 percent of student athletes drink, compared to 60 percent of students not on a team.
There’s a whole culture of sports that encourages people to play hard and drink hard.
While having a few beers after a game might seem as natural as painting your body to match the color of your favorite sports team, drinking in excess could be sabotaging your fitness goals.
Drinking alcohol before your workout
The effects of alcohol on athletic performance vary depending on when and how much your drink, your body composition, the type of exercise or sport you do, and other factors.
Research is starting to tease apart the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol on motor skills, aerobic performance, hydration and post-workout recovery.
Many of the effects that researchers have found are dose-dependent — the more you drink, the bigger the effect.
It all starts with your first drink, when alcohol levels in your blood start to rise.
Soon after, this leads to a depression of the central nervous system, which can impair your motor skills, coordination, reaction time, judgment, and balance.
These changes not only affect your athletic performance, but also increase your risk of injury.
Matthew Barnes, a researcher at Massey University in New Zealand, said that in terms of alcohol’s impact on performance, the main effect is on endurance activities like running or cycling, “probably as a result of impaired coordination and stress on the cardiovascular system.”
Alcohol has less of an effect on strength and power.
Barnes told Healthline that a “number of studies show that even at very high doses of alcohol, strength is not impacted.”
In one 2009 study, published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers found that male cyclists who had about three drinks before hopping on a bike saw a small decrease in power output.
But these changes may not be relevant to the real world.
“It is — or should be — very rare for someone to consume alcohol prior to endurance or strength training or competition, so these studies on alcohol have little application,” said Barnes.
Effects of alcohol on recovery
A more likely scenario is people drinking after a game or workout.
This is common among college athletes and weekend warriors playing in pick-up leagues.
I’ve even seen yoga teachers head to a bar across the street after a 90-minute heated yoga class — what I jokingly call a “detox-retox” program.
To recover properly after exercise, your body needs to do several things, including stimulate the synthesis of muscle proteins, restore fluid levels, and replenish glycogen.
Anyone who’s had a few drinks knows that alcohol can increase your urine production. This can also slow down your body’s rehydration process.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that this may be more of a concern with drinks that contain at least 4 percent alcohol — which includes typical beers, wine, and distilled spirits.
Some people think beer is the ideal after-workout sports drink because it contains carbohydrates and electrolytes. But they’re not in levels high enough for proper recovery.
Some researchers, though, have been manipulating the alcohol and sodium content of beer to come up with a drink that doesn’t impair rehydration.
As for replenishing the body’s glycogen, or energy stores, this depends on what you eat and drink after your game.
“Alcohol is unlikely to impact glycogen replenishment,” said Barnes, “as long as carbohydrates are consumed in a timely manner, and not excluded after exercise or replaced by alcohol — which can often be the case if socializing soon after sport or exercise.”
There’s also a danger that having a few beers after a workout means you skip your favorite protein-rich recovery foods.
Without enough protein, muscle protein synthesis isn’t stimulated, which can inhibit muscle growth and repair.
Does alcohol affect your game?
This can affect the rate of recovery.
However, “this may only occur when the level of muscle damage is fairly extreme, rather than the moderate damage and soreness you might get after a heavy resistance training session,” said Barnes.
He added that “very high doses” of alcohol can also directly impact protein synthesis and the body’s inflammatory response after exercise, “both of which may impair recovery and adaptation.”
Much of this research focuses on the short-term effects of alcohol on athletic performance and recovery. However, there have also been some studies on hangover effects.
A hangover has obvious effects, such as nausea and cognitive symptoms. But can a hangover affect your game?
Some studies have found that hangovers can actually reduce athletic performance.
But that’s not what Barnes and his colleagues saw. They did a couple of studies looking at “very high alcohol consumption in university rugby players,” testing them after a “normal” night out.
“We found no effect of alcohol on anaerobic performance the day after and two days after the drinking session,” said Barnes. “If these studies didn’t bring about changes, then I don’t think anything would.”
High intensity strength, power and speed performance were also not affected.
In one study, players reported a loss of sleep in the hours after the game. They also had more signs of alcohol use disorder, probably the result of postgame binge drinking.
How much alcohol is OK?
Many studies on alcohol and athletic performance use high doses of alcohol, levels which would typically be considered binge drinking.
Barnes said at these amounts, alcohol is “detrimental to recovery, protein synthesis, hormone production, and immune function. Lower, perhaps more realistic doses don’t have the same effect.”
For example, for a 154-pound man, five standard drinks or fewer over several hours is “probably OK.”
“That sort of amount won’t impact recovery, hydration, and is unlikely to bring about a hangover,” said Barnes.
A standard drink in the United States is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Because so many variables determine how alcohol affects you before and after exercise, Barnes said that following the guidelines for low-risk drinking is the “best way to ensure that athletic performance and recovery aren’t affected.”
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women have no more than seven drinks per week, and no more than three drinks on a single day.
Men should have no more than 14 drinks per week, and no more than four drinks on a single day.
Over the long run, excessive alcohol use can increase the risk of health effects such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and liver disease.
This is true for athletes and nonathletes alike.
“Probably more concerning than any effect alcohol has on performance and recovery is its long-term detrimental effects on health, both physical and mental,” said Barnes. “It is a toxin and a depressant, and therefore should be consumed in moderation.”