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Deadly drug or tactical tipple?

by Editor
Friday 10th December 2010

We’re bombarded with information about alcohol, and most of us probably know that excessive drinking is not a good thing. But media messages about the health benefits of a daily glass of red wine are commonplace. SARAH RUSSELL asks: can you be a runner and enjoy a drink? And will your performance benefit or suffer from a pre-race bevvy?

DRINKING HIT THE news again recently with the somewhat sensationalist headline that ‘Alcohol is worse than heroin’. It was a statement scary enough to put you off booze for life, even if you just drink occasionally. The research, considered not only the harm done to the individual user, but also to others and society as a whole, such as deaths caused by drink driving and antisocial behaviour. Unsurprisingly therefore, but somewhat misleadingly, alcohol consumption came out on top as the most harmful drug in our society.

Then there are the good news stories. For every shock headline about the dangers of drinking there is one about the health benefits of moderate alcohol intake, how drinking red wine can beat heart disease and that drinkers could even live longer than teetotallers.

So what are we to believe? And what’s the deal when it comes to running and alcohol? The legendary marathon runner Antonio Pinto (who actually owns a vineyard in Portugal) always swore by a glass of red the night before a race and claimed it actually helped his performance – and, with a PB of 2hrs 6mins 36secs, he should know. Yet for others, drinking even a tiny amount of alcohol on the eve of a race or run is a recipe for disaster.

Deadly drug or tactical tipple?

Christmas cheer

With the festive season just around the corner as well, many of us face partying and drinking much than we’re used to and if you’re training for something important, it can prove to be quite a juggling act. There’s nothing worse than running with a hangover or having to ditch a session altogether because you’ve over-indulged a little too much. On the flip side, it can also be miserable being the sober party pooper because you’ve got a run planned the next morning.

Although revealing, the statistics aren’t pretty. In Great Britain, almost one third of men and one in five women regularly drink more than the recommended amount of 21 and 14 units per week respectively: apparently that is 10 million people! One in 25 adults is actually dependent on alcohol and the UK has one of the highest binge drinking rates in Europe. And finally, and somewhat more worryingly, alcohol is estimated to be responsible for 33,000 deaths each year. As someone who enjoys a glass of wine from time to time, this didn’t make for happy reading.

As a runner, however, the chances are you take better care of your health than the rest of the nonrunning population, and it’s likely that you drink less too, if at all. There is also the mindset among some runners that we can somehow ‘run it off’ and that we can get away with it because we’re fit. In fact, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) “alcohol abuse is as prevalent in the athletic community as it is in the general population”.

So what exactly does alcohol do to us? How does it affect our running performance? Should we abstain altogether if we want to run well, or follow the Pinto example and buy a vineyard?

• to read the full feature, see this month's issue of Running fitness


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