After a hard year of training and racing, most of us like to relax in the Christmas holidays, let our hair down and indulge in a few drinks. After all, we reason, we can “burn off” those extra calories consumed by doing some longer training sessions while we are on holidays, right?

While we may use the extra calories we consume as food, especially carbohydrates, for energy, when it comes to alcohol, the news isn’t good.  As well as being calorie dense (7kcal per gram), alcohol has zero nutritional value, and isn’t metabolised for use in the body as energy.  Instead, it is metabolised to free fatty acids which in a chronically elevated state, are associated with obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The moniker that “alcohol is simply empty calories” rings true. 

Alcohol use constricts metabolism and energy production – the exact opposite of the training effect we are seeking in our endurance programs.

The cold hard facts are that there is no amount of alcohol consumption that has been proven to be safe, despite some very clever PR campaigns by agencies in the US in the 2000s that cited a tiny French study that suggested that a glass of wine per day was good for you…. sorry!

In terms of alcohol and exercise it would seem that the effects on the body as mentioned above, cancel each other out! For what good exercise does for the body, mind and spirit, alcohol in excess can be damaging.

For example: 

Alcohol impedes the ability to burn energy (ATP) and blunts your metabolism, making it easier to gain weight. Additionally, it can impair our decision making and cognition to varying degrees, therefore it may  make us less cognisant around how much energy we may be consuming, which provides a double whammy for those who are working at body composition management.  On the flip side, exercise helps improve metabolism and weight management as well as helping us to increase our mindfulness, especially where energy consumption is concerned.

Alcohol consumption is associated with dehydration and in extreme cases, cardiac issues, including arrhythmias and increased heart rate, whereas exercise has the opposite effect.

Regular exercise helps improve sleep patterns, alcohol disrupts them.

Alcohol slows you down, inhibits motor control and is a depressive drug. Exercise, on the other hand improves coordination, balance and muscular control and has a demonstrated effect on improving mood and psychological affect. 

Exercise often promotes connection with others, whereas increasing alcohol consumption can be associated with loneliness, shame and isolation, not to mention regret when after a big night you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck.

Uniquely from an endurance point of view, because alcohol disrupts fluid balance in muscle cells, their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), your muscles’ source of energy is inhibited, and the ability to contract a muscle is diminished. Additionally, alcohol inhibits the process of gluconeogenesis which in turn, ultimately reduces the amount of a coenzyme essential in the production of ATP, which results in a lack of energy and loss of endurance.

In the case of the Christmas season, it’s unlikely that the odd glass of alcohol will have long term impact. However, it’s worth considering being mindful in making choices around alcohol consumption, particularly from a training point of view.

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