Leave it to the Germans to view beer as a performance-enhancing food.
Krombacher, a brewery near Cologne, shipped about 1,000 gallons of non-alcoholic suds to South Korea as part of its contribution to Team Deutschland, according to the New York Times. (The company sent three times that amount of the regular stuff.)
Johannes Scherr, the doctor for Germany’s Olympic ski team, told the Times that nearly all of his athletes drink non-alcoholic beer during training. Judging from the country’s medal count, there may be something to their strategy: Germany is currently tied for most gold medals with 13, and six of them are in endurance skiing events.
A post-workout beer isn’t new to endurance athletes—just check the bars after a big marathon. But most of us see the pints we down with post-race pizza as an indulgence: The thing we know we probably shouldn’t drink but totally deserve.
If you’re working out hard and gulping regular beer, that’s probably a pretty wise viewpoint. Alcohol acts as a diuretic, says Stevie Smith, a registered dietitian and Ironman athlete. That means it could further dehydrate you, slowing the recovery process. Also, “ethanol has a significantly negative impact on muscle protein synthesis [the building of new proteins in the body], carbohydrate replenishment, and rehydration,” says Paul Salter, a registered dietitian and Sports Nutrition Consultant for Renaissance Periodization.
But if you nix the alcohol, you’re left with a bubbly glass of cold carbs, and that sounds pretty good after a tough workout.
Pirmin Eisenbarth, a pro mountain biker from the German state Bavaria, tells Tonic that in the past five years or so, he’s seen more and more German athletes switching from sports drinks like Gatorade to non-alcoholic brews—himself included.
“I like the refreshing taste of it. It’s super light to drink and healthy,” Eisenbarth says. He adds that while Krombacher may have sponsored the Olympic athletes, the country has many non-alcoholic beers to choose from, and that most regional breweries make their own.
While in the US it’s relatively hard to find a decent non-alcoholic beer, in Germany it’s a whole subset of the craft beer movement: The country now has more than 400 booze-free beers on the market, and some are even marketed as sports drinks. Heineken’s offering will soon be sold in vending machines in the country’s largest gym chain.
Besides being infinitely more interesting to consume, non-alcoholic beer may also best sports drinks in another area: polyphenol content. Polyphenols are plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
A 2012 paper published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that runners who were randomly assigned to drink one liter of non-alcoholic beer daily in the weeks before and after the Munich Marathon had less inflammation and fewer incidences of upper respiratory tract infections post-race compared to runners who drank a placebo. In theory, runners with less inflammation would be able to train harder, and not get sick as often, which also means better training. (Non-alcoholic beer is often a staple at the finish lines of marathons and triathlons in Germany.)
Smith says it’s possible that the beer’s polyphenol content really did help control inflammation, but that beer is hardly the only place where you find those compounds. Polyphenols are also present in tea, dark fruits, red wine, and even coffee. “The researchers stated that they didn't test the amount of polyphenols absorbed from the intestinal tract and plasma concentrations of the major polyphenols that were in the beer,” she explains, so, what we’re seeing in this paper is clearly correlation and not causation.
The study was funded by a brewery and non-alcoholic beer wasn’t compared directly to sports drinks, so those are things to keep in mind, but it was a double-blind design with a fairly large sample size of 277 male runners. For athletes hanging out in a cesspool of international germs like the Olympic Village, grabbing an non-alcoholic beer and toasting to polyphenols may seem like a good idea.
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Still, nutrition experts aren’t quite ready to open the taps and pour non-alcoholic IPAs into their client’s water bottles. Smith says that beer doesn’t contain enough sodium to qualify as a true sports drink. “Sodium is one of the things we need to replace post-workout as it helps in retaining ingested fluids, it stimulates thirst, and helps to restore plasma volume more rapidly.” Hydration is crucial because research has shown that at just 2 percent dehydration, your performance—especially your mental fortitude—starts to lag.
She points to data from the American College of Sports Medicine which says that an ideal sports drink has about 460 to 690 milligrams of sodium per liter. Beer doesn’t even come close, averaging just 29.9 milligrams per liter. And, believe it or not, beer doesn’t quite have enough carbs to help you rehydrate either. “Carbs play an important role as they speed up water absorption in the small intestine,” she explains.
Carbs also help replenish muscle glycogen stores which were depleted during exercise. Glycogen is the fuel your muscles burn while you work out. You can only store so much glycogen, and if you don’t start a workout with your glycogen stores adequately replenished, you’ll feel sluggish from mile one. Current literature advises taking in 40 to 60 grams of carbohydrate post-exercise, and the average non-alcoholic beer has just 13 grams of carbs.
Finally, beer lacks protein, Salter says. “After exercise, one is in a net negative protein balance—or a catabolic state. To optimize recovery, an athlete needs to focus on rebuilding with lean protein,” which helps provide the essential ingredients for muscle repair and growth.
The takeaway? For best results, maybe pair that non-alcoholic beer with another marvel of German engineering: a hamburger.
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