When you train hard and play even harder, research suggests you can expect a longer road to muscle recovery.
After knocking back up to eight vodka-based drinks following heavy strength training as part of a 2016 study at the University of North Texas, male participants ended up with stunted muscle growth and slower recovery.
You have a big night ahead. You know you’ll be drinking more than usual. So what do you do? You push yourself extra hard in your workout or go for a long run earlier in the day so you can enjoy a “guilt-free” night.
As it turns out, though, getting drunk is no compensation for a productive workout. In fact, it can be worse than not having gone to the gym in the first place.
Alcohol and muscle function
Normally, resistance-based exercise like weight training encourages the body to produce more of the human growth hormone (HGH), which in turn builds muscle mass, however, studies show that high doses of alcohol can disrupt this process.
But what’s considered a “high dose”?
Research confirms this largely comes down to body weight.
A Massey University study in New Zealand found that consuming more than half a gram of alcohol per kilogram of body weight after eccentric exercise (for example, lowering a dumbbell or leg press) affects muscle function.
In Australia, 10g of alcohol is considered one standard drink, so for an 80kg male, this equates to three or more glasses of full-strength beer or half a bottle of red wine.
Muscle recovery slowdown
Lead study author and sport science expert, Dr Matthew Barnes, says excessive alcohol is particularly damaging when recovering from a soft tissue injury.
Starting a new exercise regimen, increasing the load in the gym or going trekking are some examples of when this may occur.
“Micro-structural tears in the muscle fibres lead to a large inflammatory response,” he says.
Binge drinking may impair this natural inflammatory response and set back muscle recovery.
Dr Barnes adds that drinking more than a gram of alcohol per kilo of body weight post-exercise can set you up for additional trouble.
He says the alcohol starts to affect protein synthesis, which is essential for muscle growth, and interrupt growth hormone and testosterone production.
The liver, which plays a major role in hormone production and protein synthesis, is also affected.
“Exercise promotes protein synthesis, but when you put alcohol into the equation, the alcohol has to be metabolised, or broken down, first,” says Simone Austin, an accredited practising dietitian. As a result, the liver turns its attention to breaking down the alcohol, which slows down protein synthesis.
If you were to make a habit out of getting drunk after exercise then you may risk more serious illnesses, explains Dr Barnes.
“It can suppress immune function, making you more susceptible to infection and disease and less likely to fight against bacteria,” he says.
Beyond muscle recovery, a drop in testosterone production in men from excessive alcohol consumption can also lead to shrunken testes and gynecomastia or “man boobs”.
Drinking after exercise
“If you drink straight after exercise, especially on an empty stomach, alcohol can reach your brain in one minute,” says Simone.
“Do your recovery first after exercise, have something to eat, rehydrate and stretch. And after that you can enjoy a drink.”
She recommends eating wholegrains, Vegemite, turkey or chicken after exercise to restore the body’s vitamin B balance, in addition to drinking milk, which is great for rehydration post-recovery, even if you’re not planning to consume alcohol.
As for how long you should wait before pouring your first tipple, very little information is available from research studies. But to be on the safe side, Simone suggests waiting 24 hours post-exercise – even longer if you have bruising or an injury. Your hard-working muscles, and your liver, will thank you for it.
This article first appeared in Fitness First magazine.