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When it comes to athletic pursuits, what you consume directly impacts how well you can perform.  Reducing alcohol can improve athletic performance.

Performance isn’t just about how hard you can push your body, but performance also is greatly impacted by how well you recover.  As a World Champion Endurance Mountain Biker where my events can last 8 hours to 7 days, I’m always thinking about how to optimize my training and performance.  Regardless if you are training regularly for a sport or if you are trying to stay healthy doing cardio, you want to make your training time count!  Training and exercise work by creating micro-tears in muscle fibers and using energy in the form of carbohydrates (especially in endurance or cardio activities). Recovering from your effort is what makes you fitter and stronger.  What is one of the most important aspects of recovery? I’ll let you in on a secret- it’s not fancy gadgets; it’s how well you sleep. 

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

You may have heard the term sleep hygiene regarding your habits around sleep.  A few elements of good sleep hygiene include avoiding screens before bed, sleeping in a cool dark bedroom, having a wind-down routine, avoiding caffeine and alcohol consumption before bed, and going to bed and waking up at a consistent time.

Many people think drinking a nightcap (or a drink before bed) will help them fall asleep, but alcohol actually prevents us from entering the restorative stages of sleep.  The restorative phases of sleep, specifically slow-wave sleep, are what help you recover from your workouts and show up ready to perform again the next day.  Human Growth Hormone is essential to recovery and is released during the restorative phases of sleep.  Alcohol instigates a 50% drop in Human Growth Hormone!   Alcohol also fragments your sleep meaning that you wake up multiple times per night, and most of the time the wakings are not conscious so you don’t even realize it. Turns out that nightcap is not helping you at all!

How Does Alcohol Affect Heart Rate Variability (HRV?)

Consumption of alcohol doesn’t only negatively affect your sleep the night you drink it, but it can also impact your recovery and athletic performance for days following just one or two drinks.  Recovery is often measured by looking at a few daily measurements of cardiac activity: your morning resting heart rate and your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).  An elevated morning heart rate can indicate a need for more recovery.  HRV is the measurement of variation in time between heartbeats.  Generally, we want a high number/a lot of variation for HRV signaling we are recovered. A low number can signal that we need more recovery.  Data collection from many of the wearable sleep tracking devices has shown that consumption of alcohol results in an elevated morning heart rate and a reduced heart rate variability (HRV) for several days. That means the drink or two you had on Monday could still affect your performance on Wednesday.

Thankfully, there are many options these days when it comes to non-alcoholic beer, wine, and even “hard liquor” non-alcoholic options! You can have a special drink and still perform at your best!

Personally, I still imbibe in a glass of wine or beer here or there, but I do it a lot less frequently. I find that non-alcoholic beers especially scratch that itch and are a good replacement in social situations. Making informed decisions about your health and performance is empowering because you know what you are trading.

For a more scientific deep dive, check out this TrailRunner Magazine Article by David Roche.

For more articles and information on performance, nutrition, and mindset, check out Sonya Looney’s Podcast and her newsletter.

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