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How Much Alcohol Can You Drink Before It Starts to Mess with Your Fitness?

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Photo: Olha Tsiplyar/Shutterstock

If you think all gym-goers are health nuts who only drink the occasional glass of red wine or vodka with a squeeze of lime, you'd be sorely mistaken. As a group, gym-goers drink more than non-gym-goers, according to a study from the University of Miami. And the trend of combining alcohol with exercise is farther-reaching than just partaking in a happy hour or two. Studios are offering a post-barre wine-bar, obstacle course races congratulate finishers with a cold brew, and wine yoga doesn't even wait to finish the workout before pouring the booze.

So does that mean that alcohol and exercise go together as well as vodka and soda? And how much can you sip before your fitness starts to suffer? We talked to two pros—and hoped their answers weren't total buzzkills.

Your Body On Booze

To understand how booze affects your fitness, first you need to grasp how alcohol affects your body in general. Just one sip of beer, wine, or whiskey will hang out in your body for about two hours, and your liver will do most of the work breaking down the alcohol into acetic acid, says Kim Larson, R.D.N., owner of Total Body Seattle and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. But once alcohol enters the bloodstream through the stomach, it'll make its way to nearly every organ in your body.

Within minutes, alcohol will reach your brain where it impairs judgment, slows down cognitive functioning, and affects mood, explains Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a NYC-based addictions psychologist. Not to mention, it impacts motor functioning and changes the way you respond to stimuli, says Hokemeyer.

And you don't need to drink to the point of fatty liver disease (a condition developed from too much drinking over time) for all those barre-to-bar nights to start taking take a toll on your health...and your 1 rep max.

What Happens When You Drink After a Workout

Hit that boot-camp class as hard as you want, but if you hightail it to the bar right after, you might never build the booty of your dreams. Alcohol tinkers with your hormones and inflammatory response to exercise, which makes it more difficult for your body to repair and recover from the micro muscle tears that happen during training, says Hokemeyer. To see those gains, your body needs to repair those tears and grow back stronger. But if alcohol is involved, your body is too busy metabolizing the alcohol instead or recovering from that workout, says Larson.

And get this, one study by Northwestern Medicine found that you may drink more alcohol on the days you exercise. Plus, the negative effects of alcohol on muscular repair and development double up if you grab a beer rather than a proper post-workout fuel like protein, carbs, and fats, says Larson. (If you're drawing a blank on what you should be eating, check out our guide to the best post-workout snacks for every workout.)

Hard workouts drain the glycogen stores (read: energy) in your body, and drinking impedes that recovery and recharging process. Science has shown that athletes who consume alcohol at least once a week are more than twice as likely as nondrinkers to get injured, with researchers pointing fingers at the "hangover effect" of alcohol, which reduces athletic performance.

Chase Away Dehydration

You already know that you lose water and electrolytes through sweat when you work out, which can cause dizziness and dehydration. (BTW, here's how much water you should be drinking during and after a hot yoga class.) But nothing screams dehydration quite like the combo of exercise and alcohol, both of which have been widely shown to increase fluid loss, says Hokemeyer.

Alcohol consumption delays recovery after exercise, in part by delaying rehydration, which can affect performance, says Larson. However, not all experts agree on this point. In fact, research has found that drinking a beer after a tough workout was sufficient as a dehydration tool, or at the very least, drinking did not have the same diuretic response post-workout as it would on just any night out.

Regardless, when rehydration is delayed post-workout, muscles recover more slowly and glycogen is restored more slowly, both of which can hamper performance in general, and especially on successive training days, says Larson.

Alcohol dehydration isn't just an issue after a workout, but it takes a major toll on your fitness schedule if you've had a late night the day before training, too. Alcohol-induced dehydration can decrease performance by 10 percent or more, she says. This is because exercising when hungover also decreases the availability of glucose fuel during exercise, which means you'll probably be thirsty and have less energy. Bottom line: Whether it's duration, speed, or intensity, your fitness is going to suffer.

Wasted On Calories

If you're into fitness, you're likely into healthy food. While there's no rule that says if you lift you need to count your macros, you probably don't want to waste your daily calories on nutrient-poor eats or junk food. And, well, alcohol is full of empty calories. That's because there are really no beneficial nutrients in booze, and even just one drink can rack up the unnecessary calories (and sugar), says Larson. (Go grocery shopping: 20 Healthy Foods That Give You Every Nutrient You Need)

While some athletes might try to get around this rule by drinking a lower-calorie beverage like tequila, the effects of alcohol on sports recovery are the same, says Hokemeyer. "Alcohol is alcohol," he says.

What's Your Tolerance?

Apparently, there is a threshold for each athlete when alcohol becomes a detriment to aerobic performance (e.g., makes HIIT class feel inhumane and cycling feel torturous), according to research. Unsurprisingly, that threshold is different for everyone, says Hokemeyer.

To find out how much alcohol you can drink (not just in one sitting, but in general) before it starts to mess with your fitness goals, he says it's as simple as tracking your progress. "If you're not hitting your mark in a specifically articulated period of time, you'll need to look at your lifestyle choices (and alcohol consumption should be at the top of that list)," he says. If you'd rather not learn through trial and error, a rule of thumb for moderate alcohol consumption is one drink a day for women, says Larson. What's more, remember that alcohol affects women differently than men, which means you process alcohol differently and become intoxicated faster, even if you drink the same amount, according to reporting in What Young Women Need to Know About Alcoholism.

The Bottom Line On Booze

Does being serious about your workouts mean you need to swear off alcohol completely? Going dry will help you stay on track and in tip-top performance shape, but it's not exactly realistic for most everyday athletes. Some pointers to limit both the hangover and the effects of a night out on your fitness include choosing drinks with lower alcohol content, drinking fewer drinks in succession, and making sure to drink lots of water during and after a night out.

Having the occasional drink or two after a workout is a fun way to treat yourself after a grueling burpee-filled Tabata, and it won't totally derail your progress unless you're on a specially designed training program for a race or strength competition. If you fall into that latter category, sorry, but better stay off the bubbly until after you crush that goal. And remember, if you're going to sip, make sure to pay even closer attention to your diet, adding in lots of nutritious fruits and veggies, lean proteins, whole-grain carbs, and healthy fats to balance out that booze.

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