Alcohol and Athletic Performance

September 15, 2021

If there is one thing you can guarantee will come up with high school or college age athletes it's alcohol consumption. Whether it be after a big game, a weekend celebration or road trip, alcohol will likely reveal it's ugly head. Alcohol goes with athletics like Texas goes with football. Ironically, I am writing this post on St. Paddy's Day in a college town. I'm not one to spoil the party but I wanted to dig a little deeper in regards to college athletics and alcohol consumption.

I will focus on the college level simply because that's where the science came from. What I am about to talk about is simple statistics, research findings and what typically goes on in the varsity sport setting. My goal is to educate and provide some insight on what can be considered common occurrence in sport.

College Athletes Drink More

Shocking right? A study conducted examined the drinking habits of college students (both athletes and non-athletes) ranging from freshman to senior. On average, college athletes reported "heavy drinking" at least 2-3x per month while non athletes were 1-2x per month. Not a huge difference but still a significant one. I believe the real issue is what's at stake. Athletes are required to perform on a high level in the public eye whereas non-athletes may not have to. So to clarify, those with more on the line typically drink in excess more regularly.

Effect on Strength Level Recovery

The real question is "does this affect my athletic abilities?". Let's face it, yes college athletes drink but typically not around big practices or games. They figure they will recover the next day and be good to go within 48 hours. Although many athletes feel this is the case and some may indeed perform fine, a study indicated recovery was affected negatively.

The study examined both concentric and eccentric strength levels up to 3 days post workout after what they determined to be "a few". What they did was measure subject body weight and ensure blood alcohol was still within reason of the legal limit.  What they found was concentric strength levels both 36 and 60 hours post workout were similar to those of the control group. Translation: Not a significant difference in recovery. Keep in mind that this was within a reasonable limit. Same studies performed similar tests on subjects after "going big" and found concentric strength levels fell far below the control group. Food for thought. Within reasonable limit, eccentric strength levels were substantially lower 36 hours post workout and didn't begin to return to normal until 60 hours post workout. As with the concentric levels, subjects who "went big" saw their eccentric strength levels drop even more. The more alcohol consumed, the lower the strength levels post workout.

How does this affect a practice or game? Well, eccentric strength is the control you have when

lowering or returning a heavy load. An example could be lowering a heavy squat or bench press. It could also mean the ability to absorb a landing or generate enough counter movement to perform an explosive jump. It's the practical application that is most impacted when it comes to recovery.  The reduced eccentric strength levels could mean an increased risk of injury. Essentially it's like hopping back in the weight room after knee surgery and performing a squat. You may not be strong enough at the time to safely move the load resulting in potential injury. Again, more alcohol means less recovery.

Effect on Muscles and Hormones

This was pretty cut and dry. Researchers found that testosterone spiked immediately after a couple drinks in subjects and that absorption of the free testosterone had decreased. With this, they found that episodic binge drinking led to a decrease in free testosterone production. Furthermore, binge drinking led to mTor inhibition and a decrease in protein synthesis.

To simplify, binge drinking leads to a burst in testosterone but decrease in absorption. Episodic binge drinking if continued eventually decreases overall testosterone production due to the lack of ability to absorb it. The hormone responsible for signalling protein building (mTor) becomes inhibited. To summarize, your body cannot build muscle as efficiently when you drink excessively. This leads to longer recovery and a decrease in gains.

Beyond The Lab

Although these findings are important, let's not forget the big picture. Excessive alcohol consumption is dangerous. Too many college athletes engage in disorderly conduct, underage drinking and even assault.   A study found that subjects who believed they were going to get drunk, did. They tested two groups, one with alcohol and one with placebo and told both that they were consuming alcohol. Funny enough a large number of the placebo group stated they felt a little buzzed and even began to act like it. The point is that if you expect to become intoxicated, chances are you will. Whether you drink in excess does not matter as the actions carried forth afterwards are where the problems arise.

Stats in the US show a sharp increase in DUI arrests, disorderly conduct, assault and rape charges on game days. Numbers show that most individuals who were processed were inebriated and some were underage (21 in the United States).  This isn't a direct correlation to athletes however keep in mind what I said previously. College athletes were found to drink more and those who expected to get drunk, did. Combine those two factors in a college setting and issues may arise.

In Closing

Look, I'm not saying not to drink. Anybody who's been through post secondary education understands. College is an exciting time in life and to be apart of high level sports while in school is an absolute blast. You hang out, have a good time and enjoy being around peers, teammates and colleagues all looking to conquer the world. I am simply saying what everyone has already said. Know your limits, be responsible and do not drink and drive. Use good judgement and ensure consent. This means both parties are mentally sound and not incapacitated.

Need clarification? Here's what Arkansas State Law says: "Mentally Incapacitated" means that a person is temporarily incapable of controlling or resisting the person's conduct as the result of the influence of a controlled or intoxicating substance. In short, make good decisions. Stay within the legal limit and use body weight as a rough indicator for alcohol tolerance. Follow common sense guidelines and enjoy game day at your friends house instead of a police cruiser.