Illustration: Maria Chimishkyan

Test Gym

The Do’s and Don’ts of Drinking After Exercise

Finishing a workout with a refreshing beer has a long tradition among athletes. In “Before Times,” many marathons, bike races, and ski events often featured beer tents in the finishing area, and now that we’re stuck in the coronavirus pandemic for the foreseeable future, a post-exercise beer after a run in the park holds even more appeal.

Beer companies continue to market specifically to fitness fanatics. In April, Michelob Ultra began streaming workouts on its social media channels, and numerous brewers have introduced beers catering to athletes — including Harpoon Brewery’s Rec. League Pale Ale, Sufferfest Beer Company’s Flyby Pilsner, and Avery Brewing’s Go Play IPA.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that there’s some evidence that avid exercisers tend to drink more alcohol than their sedentary counterparts, and one national survey even found that drinking is associated with a 10% increase in the probability of exercising vigorously.

But what does science say about that refreshing post-exercise beer?

Of course, getting hammered won’t help your recovery after a strenuous workout, but do you have to be worried about undoing the good if you throw back a brewski or two? As a beer lover who often finishes a run or bike ride with a cold one, this is a question dear to my heart. So much so that I devoted an entire chapter to exploring it in my book, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.

A light beer won’t hydrate you better than water, but it’s not worse either

The first issue that comes to mind when considering the recovery effects of a post-workout beer is whether it impairs rehydration after a hard bout of exercise. Alcohol is known as a diuretic, so you might expect that it could make dehydration worse. But this worry is probably overblown. A randomized trial by researchers at Loughborough University looked into the diuretic and hydration effects of small doses of alcohol and found that when people were dehydrated, alcohol’s diuretic effect was blunted as their bodies worked to restore their fluid balance.

For a small study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2015, researchers had 16 male volunteers do a vigorous run in a hot laboratory. Afterward, the participants were offered either mineral water alone or beer plus water. (The runners did the protocol once under each condition, three weeks apart.) Turned out that beer didn’t affect any of the hydration measures that the scientists tracked, and they concluded that moderate beer intake, when paired with some water, had “no deleterious effects” on hydration.

Don’t expect a post-exercise beer to enhance your workout. It might help you rehydrate, but it’s a good idea to drink some water, too.

Another study, this one published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, measured the so-called beverage hydration index (a measure of the volume of urine produced after drinking that beverage) for a dozen beverages including a lager beer of 4% alcohol (Carling), water, coffee, milk, sports drink, and orange juice. The results showed that the beer had nearly an identical BHI as the sports drink Powerade, and not very different from water or coffee.

Taking these studies together, the bottom line is that the alcohol in a light or regular beer won’t do too much to counteract the hydrating properties of all the water it contains. It won’t hydrate you better than water, but it’s probably not a lot worse either.

That’s great news for sporty and nonsporty beer-lovers alike, but hydration isn’t the only issue at stake here. A couple of studies have suggested that beer, and specifically the alcohol in it, might impair muscle recovery after strenuous strength or muscle-taxing exercise.

Your muscles don’t like heavy drinking

A small 2014 study of eight men looked at how ingesting alcohol (in this case vodka mixed with orange juice) over the course of three hours, beginning after a bout of resistance exercise and cycling intervals, affected muscle protein synthesis. The volunteers each completed three trials, one where they consumed whey protein following their exercise session, another where they ingested protein plus alcohol, and another where they downed the alcohol along with a dose of carbohydrates. The results showed that alcohol, whether consumed with protein or carbs, reduced the muscle-building anabolic response to exercise and might, therefore, impair recovery and adaptations to training. But here’s the caveat: the subjects in this study drank a lot of alcohol — about seven drinks. (Researchers based these doses on the mean alcohol intake reported by team athletes during a drinking binge in previous studies.)

But does this effect translate to more moderate drinking like a post-workout beer or two? Probably not. A study published last year investigated whether drinking beer would reduce muscle gains after a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program. A total of 72 volunteers (about half of whom were female) completed a 10-week program that consisted of twice-per-week HIIT circuit training sessions.

Participants were split into groups, with one group drinking one (women) or two (men) lagers with 5.4% alcohol five days per week, another drinking sparkling water with an equivalent amount of alcohol (similar to White Claw), and the other groups drinking nonalcoholic beer or alcohol-free sparkling water. The results showed that all groups increased their lean muscle mass and decreased their fat mass. Neither beer nor the similarly alcoholic drink blunted these effects.

Moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t harm muscle recovery

Matthew Barnes, PhD, deputy head of the School of Sport, Exercise, and Nutrition at Massey University in New Zealand, has conducted numerous studies of alcohol and athletic performance. Strenuous resistance exercise, particularly eccentric exercise (like the lowering phase of an arm or hamstring curl) usually results in a temporary diminishing of strength for a day or two as the muscle works to repair and rebuild itself from the damage caused by the exercise.

If beer helps with recovery, it’s only to the extent that it helps you relax and unwind a little bit — something that’s particularly appealing in stressful times like these.

Barnes’s research found that alcohol exacerbated this short-term decline in performance in a group of 10 male volunteers who drank on the order of five drinks after a bout of strenuous leg exercises. The men experienced the greatest loss of muscle strength after they’d followed their workout with alcohol. But another study he conducted found that moderate alcohol consumption (two and a half or fewer drinks) didn’t seem to produce the same detriments, and he’s concluded that for female or male athletes, moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t seem to harm muscle recovery.

So what’s the takeaway message? Don’t expect a post-exercise beer to enhance your workout. It might help you rehydrate, but it’s a good idea to drink some water, too.

If beer helps with recovery, it’s only to the extent that it helps you relax and unwind a little bit — something that’s particularly appealing in challenging times like these.

There’s not much research on this aspect of drinking in athletes, but having a beer with friends can provide a social ritual for letting go of stress and that’s something that can only help your recovery. If you’re going to kick back with a beer after a workout, it’s a good idea to eat some food along with it and pick a beer that’s not so alcoholic that it puts you in a stupor. Stay away from the stouts and smoked porters and instead pick something under 6% alcohol.

My two cents: IPAs are too much right after exercising

I enjoy mountain biking with my friend Derek for a lot of reasons, but one is that he always keeps some Modelo Especial (4.4% alcohol) in his cooler for post-ride refreshment, which we now enjoy while tailgating, six-feet apart.

I’m also partial to Leinenkugel’s Grapefruit Shandy after a hot summer’s ride, and while researching this story, I tried a few, let’s call them “sports beers.” New Belgium Mountain Time Lager (4.4% alcohol) was pretty nice, but I was especially excited about Avery Brewing Company’s Go Play IPA (5.5% alcohol).

IPAs are my go-to beers, but they’re usually a little too much alcohol right after exercising. Avery’s lighter version really hit the spot. On my book tour last year, someone served me a very tasty FKT (for “fastest known time”) beer from Sufferfest Beer Company, which also makes Repeat, a kolsch with 3.5% alcohol. Sam Adams Marathon Brewing Company is also getting in on the sports beer market with 26.2 Brew (4% alcohol). Cheers!

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