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Beer and Running: The Positives and the Pitfalls

Considering the number of brewery-sponsored road races, drinking clubs masquerading as running groups (The famous Hash House Harriers: “A drinking club with a running problem”), the increasing popularity of the beer mile (a beer before each lap –– current world record: Canadian Corey Bellemore’s 4:34.35 –– how is this possible?!), and the creation of runner-specific beers (Sufferfest Beer Company), I can confidently say that I am not alone in enjoying a cold beer after a hard run (or an easy run, for that matter). Running and beer are longtime companions that pair together well.

There is no denying that beer can be enjoyable after running, but runners have historically claimed that beer can enhance running performance or at least aid in recovery. Let’s check out the science. Spoilers: have a beer because you enjoy it; don’t expect imbibing to improve your running.

The First Sports Drink?

Dr. George Sheehan was an early proponent of beer’s positive effects on running. When he began road racing in the 1960s, Sheehan went to starting lines “with a beer in each hand.” (Marian Cromley, “Fueling Up for Going the Distance” The Washington Post, November 6, 1983). He claimed that the balance of carbohydrates and liquid made beer an ideal fuel for tackling longer races. In This Running Life, published in 1980, Sheehan explored beer as a performance-enhancer in more detail. Based on anecdotal evidence, he suggested that two beers an hour would “provide a stimulus and a potent source of ready calories.” He provided examples of several runners who hit the wall late in their marathons, were given a can of beer, and subsequently made remarkable recoveries. Although recognizing his limited sample size, Sheehan went on to suggest that someone running ten miles a day could benefit from 4-6 cans of beer per day. Furthermore, he related that he had spoken to an exercise physiologist “who tells me that runners have actually tested out better on his treadmill the day after a night of beer drinking.”(This Running Life, 89-90) Elite runners also appeared to be doing just fine consuming large quantities of beer. Australian Olympian Rod Dixon (I’ve heard from a reliable source that he regularly traveled with two cases of Fosters) summed up the attitude with this famous quote: “I just want to drink beer and train like an animal.”

Even more flavors than Gatorade ­

Not really a sports drink

Alcohol Limits Running Performance

Beer, however, consists of more than just carbohydrates and water. Alcohol, of course, is the central ingredient when we consider beer’s effects on running. Generally, alcohol in beer ranges from 4-10 percent by volume (% ABV) with light lagers at 4% ABV, ales containing 5% ABV, oatmeal and milks stouts at 6% ABV, and imperial stouts coming in at 10% ABV. Alcohol is not a performance enhancer. Another early running expert, Jim Fixx, was less impressed with the possibilities of beer in his groundbreaking 1977 bestseller, The Complete Book of Running. Fixx pointed out that beer impaired coordination, reduced muscle strength, decreased the body’s ability to process oxygen, and compromised a runner’s performance in hot weather. When questioned about runners and beer, Fixx would reply, “Is beer good for runners? Sure…if it’s the other guy drinking it.”

We now know more about how alcohol functions in the body and it is clear that moderation is an imperative and that runners should not delude themselves about beer’s contribution to recovery. Your athletic ability can be compromised as soon as the alcohol enters your system. Imbibing on the starting line is not a great idea. According to sports nutritionist Anita Bean, most of the alcohol is broken down in the liver into acetyl-CoA and then into ATP (adenosine triphosphate, or energy). While this is happening, the glycogen and fat that would be used to fuel our running efforts are being used, instead, to break down alcohol. This is crucial when it comes to running, because it is glycogen and fat that are used to fuel our efforts. Alcohol can also interfere with how our bodies use vitamins and minerals. Alcohol is metabolized as fat, with the by-products being converted into fatty acids that are stored in the liver and bloodstream. (Monique Ryan, “Alcohol: The Nonnutritive Nutrient,” Competitor.com http://running.competitor.com/2014/06/nutrition/alcohol-the-nonnutritive-nutrient_50583#DZZlDylMJ0FPdLY0.99)

Beer is a diuretic, so drinking it before a race or a hard workout will further undermine performance. Proper hydration, of course, is an important factor in injury prevention. When dehydrated, runners are generally at a greater risk of sustaining musculoskeletal injuries such as muscle pulls. Alcohol consumption also has a negative effect on the water balance within muscle cells and will limit cells from producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy that allows your muscles to contract. As ATP levels decrease, so does a runner’s endurance. It is important, therefore, to remain hydrated. If you are consuming alcohol, be sure to accompany each drink or glass of beer with a glass of water. The water in the beer –– it is, after all, 90 percent water –– will not be enough to offset the effects of the alcohol in the beer.

Is Beer a Good Recovery Beverage?

It’s clear that limiting beer consumption before a race or hard workout will have performance benefits. What about after a run? Surely, quaffing a beer post workout aids in recovery. Unfortunately, it turns out that alcohol impedes recovery by increasing the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the levels of human growth hormone (HGH) by as much as 70 percent. HGH is vital for repairing and building muscle tissue. Alcohol also releases a toxin from the liver that attacks the hormone testosterone, yet another component necessary for building and regenerating muscle. Consumed too soon after a workout, alcohol can aggravate swelling or bleeding since it is also a blood vessel dilator. Ultimately, those few beers following a hard workout or race could delay adequate recovery. It is often, however, the fun and post-race camaraderie which is the real goal. A beer after a run can be one of life’s pleasures, just be sure to combine this with a glass or two of water and drink moderately.

Can I Still Have a Beer After Running?

Although beer is not, unfortunately, Dr. George Sheehan’s miracle sports drink; it should not be completely shunned. Aside from its social and cultural importance to the running community, it does have a similar ethanol content as wine, which means that it can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Beer also contains some soluble fiber, which can lead to a healthier lipid profile. Moderate beer consumption has also been linked to greater bone mineral density, which probably stems from beer’s high silicon content. Beer drinkers also have a lower incidence of kidney stones. It is also a source of foliate, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid and vitamin B12. As a recent article in Runner’s World pointed out, “The more malt in the brew, the more concentrated the level of B vitamins.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/fuel-school/the-health-benefits-of-beer-on-running?utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=Social&utm_term=857148523&utm_campaign=Runner’s%20World)

Site of this month’s pub run

To gain the few health contributions that beer provides to runners, it is important to moderately consume –– two twelve ounce beers for men, one for women. Sheehan’s overly optimistic 4-6 cans a day is absurd in light of current research. Gathering together with friends after a run to enjoy a few beers is good for you because it is a fun thing to do. Just don’t mislead yourself into thinking that it will have a completely positive effect on your recovery. I would never argue that you should forgo a pub run. In fact, the Fleet Feet Running Club is meeting this Wednesday, April 19, at 6:00 PM at City Line Bar & Grill (1200 Western Ave, Albany, NY 12203-3326) for our monthly pub run –– please join us. If you have a hard workout planned for the next morning, I would counsel that you go with something non-alcoholic. Otherwise, it is important to remember to have fun and not to get completely carried away maximizing your training and recovery to the detriment of enjoying your life.

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