Alcohol and recovery from exercise

We all know that we should have some carbohydrates and proteins to recover faster after a hard workout, but what happens if at the same time we have a few drinks to celebrate the achievement? How will that affect the recovery?

© Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos

In 2003, Louise Burke and her colleagues studied the effect of alcohol on the rebuilding of glycogen stores after an exhaustive bout of cycling. They noticed that alcohol slowed down the glycogen storage during the first 8 hours, but after 24 hours there was no difference anymore. This means that if the early phase of recovery was poor, there must have been a period of catching-up. They also showed that the main problem with drinking alcohol is that it makes it unlikely that you are taking in enough carbohydrates to rebuild your glycogen reserves, and, as you cannot make glycogen from alcohol, you could be losing out.

However, recovery is not only about glycogen, but also about rebuilding damaged muscle fibres. To do so you need to make new proteins, and taking in high quality protein soon after your workout can help your body to do so.

In a study published in PloSOne, Evelyn Parr and colleagues showed that drinking alcohol during your recovery hampers the protein synthesis. 8 men performed a workout comprising resistance, continuous and interval exercise. Immediately and 4 hours afterwards, they had a drink containing protein, protein with alcohol or carbohydrate with alcohol. The study was constructed as a cross-over design, which means that each volunteer performed the workout three times, using each time a different drink at the end. The researchers took muscle biopsies before the exercise, and 2 and 8 hours afterwards.
pone_0088384_g007
As you can see from this graph from Evelyn Parr’s article, alcohol impaired protein synthesis by 24%, even if the athlete had enough protein during his recovery. In real life, it is likely that the athlete would not take in proteins, and that the situation would be at best similar to having the alcohol and carbohydrate drink. That would mean 37% less protein synthesis.

The athletes in this study had about 12 standard units alcohol in their drinks. This sounds awful, but according to the researchers it corresponds to the mean amount used by team athletes during a drinking binge (!). We do not know yet what a safe amount of alcohol would be, or if that exists. We need therefore more research. Until we have that, it is better to be careful…

References:

Burke LM, Collier GR, Broad EM et al. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2003; 95: 983-990.

Parr EB, Camera D M, Areta J L et al. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillair protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PloSOne 2014; 9(2): e88384 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088384.

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