How Does Alcohol Affect Your Athletic Performance?

Understand how alcohol affects muscle health, recovery, and nutrient absorption in athletes to make smarter training decisions and achieve peak athletic performance.

Perrin Braun
By Perrin Braun
Lucia Gcingca
Edited by Lucia Gcingca

Published January 22, 2024.

a group of people standing around a barrel drinking beer

Ever wondered how that post-game drink may linger in your brain and body for days? As athletes, we navigate the fine line between performance and indulgence. Treats, lazy days, and, yes, even alcohol find their way into our training routines. But here's a twist: downing five or more alcoholic drinks in a night can impact your mental and physical game.

A heavy night of alcohol indulgence can affect your athletic performance for a hefty 72 hours. [1] Should athletes embrace it in-season? Finding the balance is key. Join us as we unravel the effects of alcohol on the athlete's mind and body.

Alcohol doesn't affect everyone equally

How alcohol affects each of us depends on the amount consumed and individual tolerance. Some studies show that a small amount of certain kinds of alcohol (namely red wine) may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. [2] Still, even a few drinks can nullify your hard work by erasing the effects of your workouts, reducing your endurance, and compromising your mental fortitude.

To get an idea of your personal tolerance, you should keep track of the number of drinks you have and how you feel during, the morning after, and in the following days after drinking alcohol.

» Are you drinking too much? Learn how too much alcohol consumption affects health

Effects of alcohol on muscle growth and recovery

Muscle health is the key to successful athletic performance, and science shows that alcohol can rob you of your hard work in the weight room. Here’s why:

Alcohol impairs muscle growth

Not only does working out under the influence increase your likelihood of injury, but it can also impede muscle growth. Long-term alcohol use diminishes protein synthesis, resulting in a decrease in muscle growth. Even short-term alcohol use can affect your muscles.

Alcohol dehydrates your body

To optimize your athletic performance, you want to recover from sore muscles as fast as possible. Alcohol has been shown to slow this process because it's a powerful diuretic, which can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. [3] And when dehydrated, an athlete is at a greater risk for:

  • Cramps
  • Muscle pulls
  • Muscle strains

Alcohol prevents muscle recovery

Getting enough rest is essential to building bigger and stronger muscles. However, because drinking alcohol negatively affects your sleep patterns, your body is robbed of a chemical called human growth hormone (HGH) when you drink. [4]

HGH plays an integral role in building and repairing muscles, but alcohol can decrease the secretion of HGH by as much as 70%. Additionally, binge drinking can reduce serum testosterone levels. Decreases in testosterone are associated with decreases in lean muscle mass and muscle recovery, which can impair performance. [5]

Alcohol depletes your energy

After alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine and moves into your cells, it can disrupt the water balance in your body. An imbalance of water in your muscle cells can hamper their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the essential fuel for all cells, including those in our muscles. [6] A reduction in your body’s ATP can result in a lack of energy and loss of endurance.

Alcohol slows reaction time

Lastly, even small amounts of alcohol can result in a slowed reaction time and decreased hand-eye coordination. [7] Not only can this impair performance, but a slowed reaction time can increase your risk of injury.

» Check out our nutrition checklist for muscle building and recovery

The effects of alcohol on memory

Performing your best often involves learning plays or strategies for a sporting event. Alcohol impairs the functioning of the hippocampus—a part of your brain that's vital to the formation of memories. [8] If you can’t form new memories, you can’t learn and store information.

Alcohol's disruption of your sleep cycle affects your memory

Creating memories is a complex process that takes a long time, and many memories are established even when you’re not actively thinking about them. In fact, the majority of memory formation happens when you sleep. [9]

Alcohol disrupts the sequence and duration of your sleep cycle (even if you drink up to six hours before you go to sleep), which reduces your brain’s ability to process and store important information.

The effects of alcohol on nutrition

Alcohol calories can't be used as fuel

We tend to think that only carbohydrates, protein, and fat can provide energy (calories). But actually, that's not a comprehensive list—alcohol has seven calories per gram (about halfway between the calorie value of carbs and fat). But unlike calories from the food we eat, your muscles are unfortunately not able to use alcohol calories for fuel. [10]

Calories from alcohol are converted into fat

Alcohol calories are not converted to glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrates, and are consequently not a good source of energy for your body during exercise. Your body instead converts the energy from alcohol into fatty acids and stores them in our fat tissue. As a result, alcohol consumption increases fat storage and can adversely affect your percentage of body fat.

Alcohol inhibits nutrient absorption

Alcohol itself is devoid of vitamins and minerals and therefore is extremely limited in its nutritional value. But beyond that, it also keeps your body from absorbing these nutrients from other sources:

  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): Thiamine is involved in metabolizing the food we eat into fuel as well as the formation of hemoglobin. Because vitamin B1 plays a role in metabolizing carbohydrates, it is essential for optimal performance.
  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy red blood and nerve cells. Because alcohol prevents b12 from being used in key processes in your body, chronic excess alcohol consumption may contribute to b12 deficiency symptoms, which manifest as anemia.
  • Folate: Folic acid is a part of a coenzyme involved in the formation of new red blood cells. A deficiency in folic acid can result in a reduced VO2 max, which can negatively affect your endurance.
  • Zinc: Zinc plays an important role in the process of energy metabolism. Alcohol depletes your body’s zinc resources, which can result in a reduction in endurance.

» Wiped out after a workout? Find out how nutrition can improve athletic performance

a vitamin b12 label with a fork and knife

Working out with a hangover

Hangovers are actually caused by alcohol toxicity, dehydration, and the toxic effects of congeners (or the byproducts of fermentation) that are present in most alcoholic drinks. If you’ve ever experienced a hangover, you’ve probably felt the symptoms of:

  • Nausea
  • Soreness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Headaches

The symptoms, which frequently coincide with a proclamation to never drink alcohol again, can lead to decreased athletic performance and have been known to decrease athletic performance capacity by as much as 11%.

Avoid working out if you have a hangover, as it can increase your risk of injury and further dehydrate you.

» Tired of hangovers? See what happens when you stop drinking alcohol for a month

a watermelon, watermelon, and watermelon watermelon

Alcohol's effects on athletic performance

Athletes need to consider the impact of alcohol on their athletic performance. If you opt to include alcohol in your regimen, steer clear of anything beyond low-volume drinking (such as a single glass of red wine) 48 hours prior to your event. Additionally, ensure proper rehydration and nourishment before indulging in alcohol after your workout.

As an athlete, unlocking peak performance starts with understanding your body's signals. Beyond familiar markers like glucose, cholesterol, vitamin D, and iron, InsideTracker evaluates 40+ essential biomarkers.

Elevate your game with a comprehensive understanding—maximize your potential, explore InsideTracker's biomarker testing today!







[6] [7]