Exercising Under the Influence: How Alcohol Affects Athletic Performance

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Certain activities just seem to pair nicely with a cocktail or a cold, frothy brew. Watching football, for example, a round of golf, or having dinner with friends. But few people would ever associate exercise with excessive drinking.

The two are simply too far apart on the “healthy lifestyle choices” spectrum, and many addiction counselors even use exercise to treat alcoholism since both stimulate the same reward center in the brain.

But here’s the thing: Studies show that the more consistently you work out, the more likely you are to be a drinker. Not only that, you’re more likely to imbibe on the days you sweat than on the days you don’t, according to scientists at Pennsylvania State University. “The research is pretty clear,” says Jakob Vingren, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise physiology and biological sciences at the University of North Texas. “People who are physically active tend to drink more than people who are not.” So let’s look at a few different scenarios and their effects on your exercise performance:

SCENARIO 1: EXERCISING WHILE INTOXICATED Effect on Aerobic Performance: Strong Impact Effect on Strength Performance: Weak Impact

Unless you’re driving a flex fuel car, filling up on alcohol won’t do you any favors if you’re an endurance athlete. That might sound like common sense—until you start hanging around serious runners (many of whom brag about their ability to drink on the run), participate in a brew hop (where they put that ability into practice), or attend a cyclocross event and witness a “hand up” (the popular but unsanctioned practice of passing beers to cyclists during a race).

Whether you get buzzed right before you exercise or fill your water bottle with something more “hoppy,” know this: “If you are near or exceed the legal limit for driving, you’ll see a reduction in aerobic power and performance,” says Vingren.

The reasons are still a bit murky, but the latest research suggests that alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to utilize glucose, its primary fuel source during high intensity exercise. “It could be that glucose is not being released from the liver at high-enough rates, or