Sam ponders the postrun drink
At 8:13pm, I’m gunning along the home straight of my local 10K – face twisted, fists clenched, sucking in loud, desperate breaths. At 8:43pm, I’m sitting outside the pub with some fellow runners, tucking into a large glass of rosé. I’m well aware that it’s not the best choice of recovery drink but, like many runners, I’m working under the premise that because I run, I have earned the right to indulge a little.
A study published in the British journal of sports Medicine in 2016 was a joy to read. After studying data from over 36,000 men and women, the researchers concluded that regular physical activity almost nullified the detrimental effects of boozing.
Even moderate drinking (within the 14-units-per-week guidelines) typically raises the risk of premature death by around 16 per cent – and the specific risk of cancer by 47 per cent. But the study found that 150 minutes a week of physical activity cancelled out the impact of drinking alcohol (at this level) on all-cause mortality death and lowered the cancer risk by 36 per cent. Even with higher levels of alcohol consumption, defined as over 14 units a week for women and over 21 for men (the guidelines have since been revised down for men), the risk was significantly lessened by 150 minutes of exercise – and completely erased in study participants who worked out for five hours a week. A long run, a speed session and a couple of easy runs each week and you can get away scot-free, it seems.
But even as I raise my glass of wine to such pleasing news, I feel a nagging sense of unease: here’s my tired and depleted body crying out for water to rehydrate, carbs to reload and protein and antioxidants to repair, but I’m throwing booze down my neck instead. When I ask myself why, I keep coming back to that ‘I’ve earned it’ notion that is so prevalent in the running world. Think how many times you’ve seen slogans such as ‘ Run now, wine later’ and ‘ Will run for beer’. (And you could, of course, substitute every mention of alcohol for cake, or chocolate.)
It’s as if my brain has decided that following some hard graft in my running shoes, I deserve a reward – in the shape of a wellfilled wine glass – and to hell with the consequences. The results of a recent study1 suggest I’m not alone: researchers found that people drink more alcohol on the days they exercise, even though logic would dictate that this is when it’s most likely to be detrimental.
Alcohol affects recovery because it dehydrates you (which you can partly offset by drinking plenty of water), inhibits the restocking of glycogen stores and affects sleep patterns, all of which will have a knock-on effect for your next run. But even more sobering, a postrun drink can blunt adaptations to training, lowering fat metabolism and reducing muscle-protein synthesis (the building blocks of new muscle) by up to a third.
You’d think we’d want to run a mile from such potentially damning effects, yet the research suggests otherwise: a University of Houston, US, study found that moderate drinkers are twice as likely to exercise compared with teetotallers and physically active people are more likely to be drinkers than their sedentary counterparts.
What gives? Are we making up for an unhealthy habit with a healthy one? Or are we simply celebrating the joy of moving our bodies with a couple of pints? I’m not sure. And nor am I ready to give up a tipple. But next time I head for a celebratory postrace drink, I’ll make sure I remember to reward my body for its endeavours, as well as my brain: the first pink liquid to pass my lips may well be strawberry milk rather than rosé.