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Would giving up alcohol make me a better runner?

by kirsty
Friday 15th January 2016
Tags  Alcohol   |   Kirsty Reade

With Dry January and new government guidelines in the headlines, Kirsty Reade takes a closer look at runners' relationship with alcohol

For many people January brings a sense of shame about Christmas excesses, slightly tighter trousers (or, as Run247 contributor Pip Haylett puts it, a ‘wine waist’) and a resolution to stay off the booze. But surely we virtuous runners, who’ve even sacrificed ‘quality’ time with relatives to fit in those Christmas runs, are a healthy lot? Our bodies are temples, aren’t they? Is this really true? Or do we in fact think that government guidelines (HERE), like recommended calorie intakes, don’t apply to us because we run a lot? 

I was very interested to find out what runners’ attitudes towards alcohol were, partly from a personal point of view. I’m a moderate drinker but lately I’ve been wondering if my running would benefit if I cut it out altogether. I’m not at a level where those sort of marginal gains are likely to make much difference to me, but I am at an age where I don’t need to be making things any harder for myself.

I decided to contact a broad range of my running friends, to find out their attitudes towards alcohol and to see if their responses threw up (no pun intended) any golden nuggets of advice. Ideally I was looking for one of two conclusions: either ‘you can drink whatever the hell you like and it won’t affect your running’ (I could live with this) or ‘if you stop drinking altogether your times will miraculously improve and you’ll be PBing like it’s 1999’ (worth the sacrifice). Did I find either of these answers?

It wasn’t a big surprise to find that many of the runners were quite moderate drinkers. Most would avoid drinking excessively the night before a big training run or a race and most tend to live a fairly healthy lifestyle because of their running. As Rob, an ultra runner, puts it: ‘I suppose the running and being healthier became more important and enjoyable than drinking too much or too regularly’. This was a fairly typical attitude. Drinking less didn’t seem to be a deliberate plan for most of the people I spoke to, it just happened as they ran more.

A very speedy (1.22 half marathon, 2.51 marathon) runner I spoke to does abstain most of the time to try to benefit his running (and as part of a healthy lifestyle), though he was never a big drinker before. He was the only runner who mentioned alcohol (and food) in conjunction with actively seeking out ways to improve his performance. However, even he falls off the wagon on occasion. He recounted a sorry story about a Friday night out with friends, his wife kindly reminding him that he never misses a parkrun, resulting in this: ‘every step I took felt like being hit around the head with a hammer, and I could smell a fry-up being cooked by someone moored up on a barge which did not help either’. A cautionary tale for all of us.

At the other end of the scale there were several runners who like to do everything to extremes. There were a few tales of overindulgence before races and interestingly, all of these runners said that they felt it hadn’t affected their race. Can that really be true?  This is what Becs, a marathon runner, had to say: ‘Do I think alcohol affects my running, no! But I know that is bullsh*t! Yes, I think because I run, and a lot, that I feel I can drink! Hey, life is for living and I tend to do most things to extreme; work and play!’. There are probably a lot of runners who can relate to that.

One thing that came up a lot is that a sensible level of one or maybe two drinks the night before a race isn’t enough to affect performance, but can be effective in calming the nerves and can just be a pleasant thing if you’re having a meal with friends. Mel, a runner and fitness instructor, has a traditional gin and tonic the night before a race and many admitted to a beer or a wine with their pre-race dinner. Interestingly, a couple of runners said that they’d turned out their best performances the day after a few drinks. One said that having a drink the night before took the pressure off, so if he turned in a bad performance he had an excuse. But he usually turned in a very good performance.

The internet is full of ‘are you addicted to running?’ articles and there are many books and blogs written by people who’ve swapped another addiction for running. There are certainly a lot of runners who have addictive personalities, so it’s no surprise that a small number of the runners I spoke to were conscious that they were at risk of having a dependency on alcohol. As one very eloquently put it: ‘It's a painful relationship with alcohol, and with running, actually. Maybe the two are both toxic addictions that consume our very souls, and wrack us with guilt and self-loathing.’

Interestingly, only one runner expressed concerns about alcohol and their weight. Most fell into the ‘I run a lot, therefore I can eat and drink what I want within reason’ category. One, Mel, pointed out the negative effect of alcohol on sleep, which could well be having an impact on running, but many runners don’t realise it. Many enjoyed a drink as a reward after a long run or race, and one did a lot of their social running starting and finishing at pubs as a hasher (HERE). In general, there was very little concern about the effect of alcohol on overall health amongst the runners I spoke to. None really saw the need to avoid alcohol altogether.

So, did I reach a conclusion on whether or not to stop drinking from speaking to this broad range of lovely runners? Yes, I did. While this isn’t scientific in any way, what I learned from their experiences is that it’s all about balance. A few glasses of wine here and there won’t do your running much harm, one might help you to relax before a big race if you feel like it, and the social aspect of going to the pub after a run can be part of the whole experience. Abstaining from alcohol altogether might have a small benefit to my running, but keeping that hard line in situations where I might enjoy a glass of wine might not be much fun. As I find so annoyingly often with running, there’s no magic bullet. You just have to get out there in the cold and work hard if you want PBs. And if I do ever manage to crack another PB, it will be drinks all round.


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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Alcohol and running

by Simon jones
16:22, Friday 15th January 2016
A lovely article Kirsty I hope you did not end up more confused then when you started and found some consistency.
TereréJordan Blood