‘Peo­ple fear that if they give up drink­ing they lose the craic’

Ath­letes have dis­cov­ered that drink­ing even small amounts of al­co­hol can have a neg­a­tive im­pact on per­for­mance

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Fitness - Claire Gor­man

Ire­land rugby player Ciara Grif­fin quit drink­ing al­co­hol in her late teens when she knew she was se­ri­ous about the sport. “I un­der­stand peo­ple like to drink so­cially and I’m not against drink­ing, but un­for­tu­nately in my own ex­pe­ri­ence it’s very dif­fi­cult to drink and per­form at a high level,” says the 23-year-old.

Although some ath­letes man­age to suc­ceed at a high level and drink al­co­hol, it in­creases your risk of in­jury, af­fects per­for­mance and length­ens re­cov­ery time.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to train and gym all the time if you’re go­ing out hav­ing a lot of drinks at the week­end. It’s just giv­ing your body a chance to re­cover,” says Grif­fin.

“I had to make a de­ci­sion whether I wanted to take my sport really se­ri­ously or go out and so­cialise a lot. I pre­fer play­ing sport to so­cial­is­ing. It was a no-brainer for me be­cause I knew what it takes to train and per­form at a high level so I’d no prob­lem giv­ing up that.

“I felt way bet­ter af­ter giv­ing it up [drink­ing al­co­hol]. I felt like a new per­son. Train­ing didn’t take as much out of me. Peo­ple di­gest things dif­fer­ently so I might not af­fect other peo­ple as much as it af­fected me.”

The flanker, who played in the Women’s Rugby World Cup dur­ing the sum­mer, says it was hard at the start, hav­ing just started col­lege, but she doesn’t feel like she misses out so­cially now.

“Peo­ple at the start were ask­ing, ‘you’re not drink­ing, how come?’, but when they un­der­stood my sit­u­a­tion and what I wanted to do there was no pres­sure. I never felt peer-pres­sure to drink,” she re­calls.

“I’m not miss­ing out on any­thing be­cause you can still go out and have fun and chat away to your friends and just have a soft drink or sparkling wa­ter. You still get the so­cial im­pact. Peo­ple fear that if they give up drink­ing they lose the craic, but you can still have it.”

Per­sonal choice

The pri­mary school teacher, from Bal­ly­ma­cel­lig­ott in Co Kerry, adds that giv­ing up al­co­hol needs to be a “per­sonal choice”.

“You do it your­self. It’s just like go­ing to the gym or any­thing. If you’re given a set pro­gramme and the trainer tells you to do x, y and z, that pro­gramme isn’t worth the pa­per it’s writ­ten on un­less you do it. It’s the ex­act same thing for giv­ing up drink. You can’t tell a per­son to give it up.

“I know a lot of amaz­ing play­ers who I look up to and they do have a so­cia­ble drink ev­ery now and again and they’ve no prob­lem with it. But for me, if you want to reach this level, you can­not drink.”

Aine Done­gan, a pro­fes­sional triath­lete and part-time nurse, dra­mat­i­cally re­duced her al­co­hol in­take be­cause of the im­pact it had on her train­ing.

The 29-year-old, from Gar­ris­town, Co Dublin, raced her first triathlon at a char­ity event in July 2013 and be­came Ir­ish Mid­dle Dis­tance Na­tional Cham­pion last Septem­ber.

She took part in her first triathlon for fun, af­ter spot­ting it ad­ver­tised while on a night out in Cork, and nat­u­rally low­ered her al­co­hol in­take as she be­came se­ri­ous about the sport.

“I was a pretty nor­mal, teenage, col­lege drinker when I was grow­ing up. With the in­crease in train­ing, I just found that I didn’t really want to drink. I wouldn’t feel well the next day. It would im­pact my per­for­mance,” she ex­plains.

“I found my­self quite de­hy­drated and slug­gish in train­ing so it just nat­u­rally hap­pened that I didn’t want to drink any­more. It didn’t make me feel that good about my­self or about train­ing.

“As train­ing got more se­ri­ous and I got more into triathlon and I started to fo­cus on my re­cov­ery more, I wouldn’t drink com­ing up to a big event. In the pre­ced­ing two or three months I wouldn’t even want to drink al­co­hol.”

Nowa­days, she has an oc­ca­sional few drinks af­ter a big event – and with the ap­proval of her coach.

“Af­ter a big race or a big train­ing block I’d have a few glasses of wine or some­thing, just to chill out com­pletely and re­lax – not go mad or any­thing, but make sure ev­ery­thing is done in mod­er­a­tion. My coach ac­tu­ally ad­vo­cates ev­ery now and again to just go out and en­joy your­self and not re­strict your­self too much in any way.”

She ad­mits it was a strug­gle to ad­just ini­tially, but now the ath­lete, who races un­der a pro li­cence at Iron­man events, has no prob­lem mak­ing the sac­ri­fice.

“Ini­tially, I did find it a bit of a strug­gle. I was in my mid 20s and my friends that I’d grown up with were all go­ing out drink­ing. I would’ve found a bit of pres­sure on me to have drinks,” she re­calls.

“Some­times I ac­tu­ally pre­tended I was drink­ing when I wasn’t drink­ing. I would go up and ask the bar­man to put a lime cor­dial or some­thing in the sparkling wa­ter so I could pre­tend I was drink­ing a vodka or some­thing and put a straw in it. That way I could re­lax more in these so­cial sit­u­a­tions.”

“When I do go out, my friends ac­cept that I’ve given up other com­mit­ments to just be there and there is a big in­crease in my train­ing load this year. I did miss some big events this year like my friend’s wed­ding and my best friend’s 30th, but my friends are really un­der­stand­ing that this is what I do.”

Done­gan, who cut down her hours at work and re­lo­cated to Grey­stones, Co Wick­low for train­ing, says not drink­ing has saved her a lot of money.

Hav­ing a back­ground in car­di­ol­ogy nurs­ing, she also un­der­stands the im­pact of al­co­hol on your heart.

“I’m really aware of the ef­fects al­co­hol can have on your heart and the dan­gers of ar­rhyth­mia in ath­letes specif­i­cally so that was an­other rea­son. The com­bi­na­tion of al­co­hol, de­hy­dra­tion and push­ing your heart to those lev­els can have a ma­jor im­pact on your heart,” she ex­plains.

Per­for­mance level

Conor O’Brien, con­sul­tant clin­i­cal neu­ro­phys­i­ol­o­gist at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, warns that al­co­hol both low­ers your per­for­mance level and leaves you more likely to get in­jured.

“Al­co­hol is the most abused drug by the ath­letic pop­u­la­tion, and it does two very spe­cific things. It sig­nif­i­cantly re­duces your aer­o­bic per­for­mance. It re­duces your ath­letic per­for­mance the fol­low­ing day in what you call ‘the hang­over phase’. If you drink on a Fri­day and play on a Sat­ur­day, your per­for­mance will go off by about 11.3 per cent,” he ex­plains.

“The sec­ond thing is, if you drink al­co­hol, your in­jury rate goes up and it’s of­ten in the sec­ond half of a game. It is prob­a­bly, of all the drugs that ath­letes take, the worst by a dis­tance. It’s read­ily avail­able and also sports clubs or places like that are where peo­ple of­ten start drink­ing. Al­co­hol is very much part and par­cel of so­cial­is­ing in sports, but really it’s a very poor friend to the ath­lete.”

He says the im­pact of drink­ing al­co­hol will be dif­fer­ent for each in­di­vid­ual ath­lete – and just one drink is enough to have a neg­a­tive ef­fect.

“The sci­ence of it is that the al­co­hol is metabolised in your liver by an en­zyme called al­co­hol de­hy­dro­ge­nase so how you metabolise it and how I metabolise it will dif­fer. It is metabolised at a very slow rate so you could metabolis­ing al­co­hol for 36 hours, even af­ter a glass of wine or a pint of beer,” he says.

“It isn’t just the quan­tity of it – it’s even any amount of it. The sci­ence is very clear that when you drink al­co­hol, five things hap­pen and they all neg­a­tively im­pact on your phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tion. It af­fects your abil­ity to use glu­cose, it af­fects the pro­duc­tion of en­ergy, causes de­hy­dra­tion.

“It’s not just, ‘I only had two drinks,’ – two drinks might be enough. You use an en­zyme called NADH to metabolise al­co­hol. If you’re low in NADH, you’re go­ing to pro­duce lac­tic acid. In a pe­riod of time when you’re ex­er­cis­ing, you’re go­ing to fa­tigue sooner. Even a glass of a beer may be too much in a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual.”

Dr O’Brien car­ried out re­search on the im­pact of al­co­hol con­sump­tion on rugby play­ers in the late ’80s and early ’90s and dis­cov­ered that if they drank al­co­hol the night be­fore a match, the av­er­age re­duc­tion in per­for­mance was 11.3 per cent. He points out that a coach that could in­crease a team’s per­for­mance by this amount would be “won­der­ful”.

I’m not miss­ing out on any­thing be­cause you can still go out and have fun and chat away to your friends

Ciara Grif­fin in ac­tion for Ire­land: “I had to make a de­ci­sion whether I wanted to take my sport really se­ri­ously or go out and so­cialise a lot. I pre­fer play­ing sport to so­cial­is­ing. It was a no-brainer.”

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