Effects of Alcohol on Performance

By: Matt Van Dyke

Ethanol, which is the energy source found in alcohol, is commonly consumed in social situations, particularly in college, but has many negative side-effects on the body, some performance limiting. These negative side-effects include, but are not limited to, general performance decreases, reduced decision making abilities, and reduced recovery post-training which leads to an increased injury rate. It is vital that athletes realize and understand the issues that can arise with the consumption of ethanol and how it can affect their performance.

Alcohol is classified as a depressant and is treated like a toxin by the body. When ingested, alcohol becomes the primary concern of the body. The metabolism of alcohol, as a toxin, is much different from other nutrients. Being metabolized almost completely by the liver, the first step of ethanol breakdown is completed very rapidly, while the second step is much slower. This can lead to an accumulation of by-products within the liver when excessive ethanol is consumed. The energy from ethanol contributes little to nothing to muscle energy, so there will be no improvements if consumption is intended to utilize ethanol as an energy source. The majority of ethanol consumed will be converted to fatty acids in the liver or stored as adipose tissue. This excess storage is caused by glycolysis being blocked, with ethanol taking first priority as it is viewed as a toxin within the body. When the ability to utilize glycolysis is hindered, extra calories are then stored as adipose tissue in the body, leading to increases in body fat percentage. Ethanol further increases fat storage within the body by stimulating appetite, causing even greater consumption of calories which contribute even more to body fat storage.

Ethanol consumption leads to many other negative side-effects as well, with some leading to decreased performance in athletes. The areas of performance decrements due to ethanol include, but are not limited to, increased reaction time, decreased balance, coordination, strength and power, and speed. These effects on performance due to alcohol extend beyond the time blood alcohol content is elevated, with reaction time being decreased for up to 72 hours following intake. Consumption post-exercise has been shown to block the utilization of testosterone, leading to inadequate adaptations to training.

Proper recovery post-training can be diminished in other ways as well due to ethanol consumption. When the body is focused on ridding the body of alcohol, as it is viewed as a toxin, other physiological processes, such as carbohydrate replenishment are viewed as less important. This reduction of carbohydrate within the body leads to a drop in energy levels and a decreased ability to train and/or compete at the highest intensities in subsequent exercise. Ethanol, being a depressant, leads to the slowing of heart rate and decreased respiratory rate. This makes recovery more difficult as the body is not receiving proper amounts of blood and oxygen. Ethanol also suppresses anti-diuretic hormone, which leads to increased urine output and dehydration. Proper hydration optimizes muscle building capacities, assists in transporting nutrients, and also helps by ridding the body of toxins and unwanted by-products. Clearly keeping your body in a state of dehydration is harmful to recovery from training. Sleeping patterns also are disrupted with alcohol intake, with greater consumption leading to decreases in quality of sleep and total sleep time. This reduction in sleep quality and total time continues to diminish the ability of the body to recover from intense training sessions and also decreases the immune system function. The depression of the immune system increases the likelihood of sickness and decreases responses to training. The likelihood of injury increases exponentially with each of these ways in which proper recovery is prevented. Recovery time from injuries also increases with ethanol consumption.

Ethanol consumption clearly has negative side-effects on everyday functioning as well as athletic performance. As an athlete, it is crucial to know and understand how ethanol affects your body. Once these effects are realized, the decision of consumption falls back on the athlete. The physiological changes with alcohol consumption include, but are not limited to, general performance decreases, reduced decision making abilities, and reduced recovery post-training, which leads to an increased injury rate. With all of these effects, consumption of alcohol must be carefully and critically considered by each athlete if he or she wishes to see optimal adaptations to their training program.