In general, even though it’s a bit counterintuitive, people who exercise regularly tend to drink more than people who don’t. And if people are going to be working out and then heading to the bars, it’s important to understand what that does to the body, says Danielle Levitt, a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas who studies the interaction of alcohol and exercise.
Levitt's latest finding, published this week in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, is that drinking after doing familiar types of exercise does not have an impact on muscle power recovery in men. The exercise—in this case, back squats—caused soreness and reduced power for the men during a follow-up test two days later, but alcohol didn’t make it any worse.
That result was surprising, Levitt says, because previous research has found that drinking alcohol post-workout does indeed have an effect on men. Those studies, however, used exercises that the participants were unfamiliar with, which are more likely to cause more damage to muscle tissue.
“With the non-novel exercise, there was probably less muscle damage,” Levitt says. During the latest study, ten male participants did four sets of ten back squats. All the participants were regular weightlifters, Levitt says. During the first week of the study, the team familiarized the men with the exercises and completed baseline testing.
A week later, they came back to perform the squats. Ten minutes after completing the exercise, the participants spent 30 minutes drinking—either vodka mixed with Crystal Light, or just Crystal Light (with some vodka spread on the rim, to try and keep the subjects blinded to which drink they had). In the alcohol condition, the men drank enough to get their body to a blood alcohol content of .12, which is over the legal limit.
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For most participants, that meant around five shots—standard shots, Levitt says, not the size a heavy-handed bartender might pour. “Even though that does sound like a lot of vodka, our participants handled it well,” she adds.
After 24 and 48 hours, the men came back in for follow-up testing: a vertical jump test, a change-of-direction test, and a sprint acceleration test. A week later, they came back to do it all again and swapped conditions—men who had alcohol the first time drank plain Crystal Light, and vice versa. Across the board, reported levels of soreness and vertical jump height stayed consistent when the men drank and when they didn't.
Matthew Barnes, a lecturer at Massey University's School of Sport and Exercise in New Zealand, says the findings match what he’s seen in his lab. Barnes started studying the effect of alcohol on exercise around 2010, after realizing that there was a gap in the research. “Up until that point, people had focused on [the effects of] consuming alcohol before exercise,” he says. “But that’s not really relevant except in certain situations—like the beer mile in America.” Most of the time, Barnes says, athletes will hit the bar after a game, not before.
Barnes’ early studies put the quad muscles in men through intense workouts, and then looked to see if alcohol impacted their recovery. While he did see decreases in muscle strength and lengthened recovery time, the participants had also just undergone a particularly grueling routine. “It’s not what you’re going to get under most situations,” Barnes says. “It was like if you didn’t got the gym for six months, and then went and smashed yourself right off the bat.”
Research starts at the extremes, so those initial studies were important, he says. But in his later work, which focused on more real-world applications, alcohol consumption didn't seem to have an effect on recovery. For instance, Barnes ran rugby players through the same activities they would do during a typical game, gave them alcohol, and then tested their recovery. “The alcohol had no real difference,” he says. “These were guys at the end of a rugby season, so the movements weren’t novel.”
This suggests that if an exercise is familiar—and isn’t going to cause a severe amount of muscle damage—alcohol may not have an effect, Barnes says. Levitt’s new study, he says, adds more evidence to support this hypothesis.
Barnes thinks that when you consume alcohol after your muscles sustain a very high level of damage, it keeps the normal mechanisms that repair the tissues from working properly. “Alcohol changes the way the immune system works,” he says. “Instead of normally getting this anti-inflammatory process after muscle damage, alcohol brings about pro-inflammatory process, which changes the way we respond to injury.” It also might interfere with the proteins that help regenerate and repair muscles, or make it more difficult for the nervous system to call on the muscle's full power.
But if the muscle isn’t heavily damaged—such as after a less intensive workout—those factors may not play as much of a role, Barnes says. More research needs to be done before any formal recommendations can be made to athletes, he adds. For instance, we don’t have much data on what happens once sleep deprivation—or an empty stomach—enters the equation.
It’s also important to untangle the role that gender plays, Levitt says—her study on consuming alcohol after muscle-damaging workouts in women found that they don’t show the same pattern of prolonged recovery seen in men. “Evidence appears to suggest women’s performance is less affected,” she says, adding that estrogen might help protect muscle tissue.
Even if big night out may not hurt your recovery after a single lifting session, however, it doesn’t mean you should make it a habit, Barnes says. “You still need to consider health risks of drinking alcohol—exercise or not. It’s still a pretty toxic thing to be putting into our body.”
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