Consuming alcohol is a popular and sometimes problematic part of society and equally the relationship between booze and cycling is a complicated and sometimes contradictory one. Aside from the celebratory champagne on the podium, headlines have at times focused on the post-race binges of Sir Bradley Wiggins and the more sordid claims from Jonathan Tiernan-Locke that a massive bender a few days out from the Worlds was behind his adverse biological passport.
For more romantic stories we can look back to the early years of the Tour de France when loyal domestiques would raid bars along the route to supply their team leader with beer, wine, and champagne to quench his thirst. Apparently, the great Jacques Anquetil was particularly partial to a glass of bubbly.
Aside from the pros, amateur athletes also add to the story of alcohol and cycling. I'm sure most cyclists have enjoyed, or at least experienced, the early morning spin to clear the head after one too many, and often a glass of wine or beer is a reward for completing a hard training ride. However, the adverse effects of alcohol have never been more in the public eye. Concepts such as 'Sober for October' and the raft of people giving up the booze as a New Year's resolution is a tip of the hat to the adverse effects of alcohol but also a recognition of the fact that for many it's not an easy thing to quit!
What follows is a little more information on the effect alcohol has on the body so you can decide where a drink fits in with your own cycling.
Drinking While Cycling
Alcohol probably isn't at the top of your list of performance-enhancing drinks, but anyone who witnessed Adam Hansen taking a beer from a fan on Alpe d'Huez's Dutch Corner, or anyone who's enjoyed a nice cold beer or cider on a hot summer's ride might wonder about the effects of alcohol consumed while cycling.
Dehydration is a commonly cited reason for avoiding alcohol, but research suggests that this is only a problem if you consume a drink stronger than four per cent. Stick to relatively weak or moderate strength beverages and the fluid consumed more than offsets the minimal diuretic effect.
The big concern when it comes to alcohol and cycling is the effect it has on coordination, reaction times and decision making. For the same reason drink driving is banned, it is also an offense to be in charge of a bicycle in a public place while unfit through drink or drugs. This is a separate offense to that for drink driving, so you won't be subjected to a breathalyzer or blood test but if a police officer judges that you are chink then you could be arrested and face.
In summary, one or two drinks on a social ride with an alcohol content lower than four per cent won't adversely affect your performance but cycling home from the bar after a skinful is dangerous and illegal.
Drinking the Night Before Cycling
While drinking on the bike or during a ride is probably not that common and certainly not something that most would consider for a race or big challenge ride, it is more likely that you'll be faced with the situation of trying to ride the morning after the night before. Again, if the event is your big cycling goal of the year, then it's hard to think of a reason why you would want to risk underperforming for the sake of a few drinks but faced with the prospect of drinking the night before a big ride, what are the likely effects?
Dehydration: the evidence that alcoholic drinks of less than four percent do not have a net dehydrating effect is equally relevant to the night before your ride as it is during the ride itself. If you must drink stronger drinks than this, and if you're partial to a nice Belgian Tripe or a glass of red wine then you're certain to fall foul of this, so be sure to alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks. You should also make sure to end the night with a soft drink to avoid going to sleep in a dehydrated state.
Fuelling: alcohol goes straight to the front of the queue when it comes to metabolism, so it will be burned in preference to fat and carbohydrate as the two more conventional energy sources. In particular, with carbohydrate metabolism impaired by alcohol, you may find that high-intensity exercise performance is reduced more than if you stick to steady endurance riding.
Sleep: one of the big downsides of consuming alcohol the night before an important ride is the effect it has on your sleep. While many swear by a nightcap to help send them off to sleep, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that alcohol consumption before bed reduces the amount of time you spend in the REM phase of the sleep cycle. So while you may get the same quantity of sleep, it is the quality that's lacking. If you've ever found yourself struggling to keep your eyes open after a night on the sauce, even if you've still had your regular hours of sleep, then you've experienced this first hand.
Of course, the other problem with having a drink is that it often goes hand in hand with a late night and a subsequent reduction in sleep hours to give a double whammy with the lack of quality sleep. And finally, no summary of drinking the night before a ride would be complete without mentioning the dreaded hangover. Alcohol is a toxin, and so the headache and sickness that often follows what for some might only be a few drinks is a combination of dehydration and mild alcohol poisoning. Or maybe not so mild if you really overdo things!
Drinking After Your Ride
Many cyclists are well aware of the negative consequences of consuming alcohol before and during a ride but a post-ride celebratory drink is no problem, surely? Using booze as a 'reward' is perhaps the most common use of alcohol among athletes, so what are the effects of post-exercise drinking? Again, dehydration and impaired sleep are the same as previously discussed — quality sleep is vital to the recovery process so already we can see that post-exercise alcohol consumption will negatively affect the recovery process. Beyond that there are some other considerations:
Hormonal: a large alcohol intake (1.5g alcohol/kg of body weight, equivalent to —12 standard drinks for a 70kg cyclist) has been shown
to decrease free testosterone. Even worse, if this binge' takes place after endurance exercise, the effects are both more pronounced and more prolonged_ Large alcohol consumption has also been shown to increase the levels of cortisol and decrease levels of growth hormone.
You don't necessarily have to understand the physiology, other than to know that these effects are opposite to that desired for recovery and adaptation following training. The research does not show such pronounced effects for more moderate alcohol consumption, but the combination of prolonged endurance training and post-exercise alcohol consumption still combines to give a much worse effect.
Glycogen replenishment: in the past, it was believed that alcohol had a negative effect on glycogen replenishment but recent studies have shown that provided there is an adequate intake of carbohydrate post ride, then alcohol does not have an impact on this crucial area of recovery for endurance athletes. In other words, post-ride alcohol consumption only hinders the replenishment of your vital carb stores if you replace your carbs with alcohol. Be sure to consume your recovery shake and meal, even if you have an alcoholic drink alongside your post-ride meal.
Muscle protein synthesis: perhaps linked to the altering of the body's post-exercise hormonal balance, large alcohol consumption after training has been shown to reduce muscle protein synthesis in the time following training. Training breaks down muscle and provides a stimulus to adapt and improve. If we then impair the process of rebuilding and repairing the damage done, then we undo all the benefits of that hard work!
Immune system: most people are familiar with anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and therefore view inflammation in the body as a negative. Perhaps fewer people recognize that inflammation is a vital biological process that plays a critical role in the function of the immune system. Research has consistently shown that acute (short-term) alcohol consumption upsets the balance of normal inflammatory processes and reduces the effectiveness of the immune system. After a hard training session, the immune system is already in a very weakened state, and it is quite clear that post-exercise alcohol consumption only makes this worse. If you're someone who regularly suffers from illness and infection after hard training sessions (or indeed hard drinking sessions), then this information should encourage you not to mix the two.
Alcohol and Body Weight
If everything we've mentioned in the previous sections hasn't got alarm bells ringing, we still haven't touched on one of the biggest fears that people have with consuming alcohol —weight gain. The problems here are manifestations of many of the things discussed previously, but here they are again in the context of weight gain.
Burning it off: alcohol is burned in preference to carbohydrate, fat, and protein; in other words, when you consume alcohol it literally goes straight to the top of the food chain, and any other energy substrates you consume won't be metabolized until alcohol is. When you consider that alcohol is converted to acetate, which is toxic to the body, maybe you'll be more forgiving that your body chooses to get rid of it first. What it does mean, though, is that fat and carbohydrate in your diet are more likely to be stored as body fat while the alcohol is metabolized_ So alcohol almost never gets stored as fat directly, but it does increase the chance of other nutrients ending up as the infamous beer belly.
Poor food choice: as if hormonal imbalances, metabolic disruption, ruined sleep and poor recovery weren't enough, another problem associated with alcohol consumption is the increased chance of making poor choices with your diet. It might begin as something as innocent as a packet of crisps or pork scratchings, but it ends with the post-bar hot dog. Increased body weight or poor body composition can be just as commonly an indirect result of alcohol consumption rather than the direct biological effects. A little discipline goes a long way here, but try to eat before you go out, or arranging to meet friends at a restaurant with healthy food choices rather than at a bar can go some way to helping you maintain some discipline.
So if you're striving to get the most out of your cycling, it has to be said that limiting alcohol consumption in your lifestyle is a major step in maximizing the effect of your training. If you're partial to the odd drink, or if you often find alcohol consumption negatively affects your riding, then the trick lies in moderation. One or two small drinks is going to have minimal effect on your performance, provided you remember to rehydrate and don't miss out on quality sleep as a result.
Timing is also an issue: looking at hard training as a punishment for a binge, or conversely treating a few drinks as a reward for a tough session is the wrong way to look at things. To get the best of both worlds try and separate a night out from your key training sessions. By understanding the effects of alcohol on cycling, you can make informed decisions either way.