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How Alcohol Affects Your Athletic Performance

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Does Alcohol Affect Athletes Differently?

Alcohol affects the human body no matter who you are. This includes athletes. Alcohol affects athletic performance. For example:

Muscles and Bones

When you drink alcohol, it can impact many different parts of your body, including your muscles and bones. Alcohol is a depressant, which can slow down your body's natural processes and functions. This leads to a decrease in muscle mass and a loss of bone density.

Hydration

Alcohol is dehydrating, which leads to cramping and pain in your muscles. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes your body to lose fluids. The result is dehydration, which makes it difficult for your body to process nutrients and calories.

Dehydration also makes you more susceptible to injury, as your bones will be weaker and more brittle. If you drink alcohol regularly, it's important to stay hydrated and to get enough calcium and vitamin D to help offset the impact on your bones.

Metabolism

Alcohol slows the body’s production of glucose in the liver. Glucose is necessary for the body to create energy. When your body doesn't have enough glucose, it will start to break down muscle tissue for fuel.

Alcohol also affects the way your body burns fat. When you drink alcohol, your body will burn alcohol for energy before it burns fat.

Finally, alcohol has no nutritional value. It’s just empty calories, inhibiting your body’s ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients. Your body can’t perform at its optimal level when it’s hungry for vital nutrients.

Neurological

Alcohol is a depressant. It slows the brain and central nervous system (CNS). This affects hand-eye coordination, balance, and reaction time — all important factors in athletic performance.

Alcohol also slows breathing and lowers body temperature. These effects can lead to potentially life-threatening issues when someone is taxing their body in sports.

Recovery

Recovery is an important factor in the lives of many athletes. They push their bodies to the limit, which requires time to recover between performances. 

Alcohol weakens immunity and affects muscle protein synthesis. This slows the body’s ability to recover. It also affects hormone production, a vital part of the recovery process.

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How Alcohol Impacts Athletic Performance

The timing of alcohol consumption is important for athletes. For example:

Before Exercise

Drinking before an athletic endeavor damages endurance. If you overindulge, you’ll likely experience hangover symptoms, including:

  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Dehydration

In addition to feeling poor overall, you’ll also have slowed reaction time and less hand-eye coordination. Drinking too much also tends to impact sleep negatively. If a hangover is severe enough, you might be unable to maintain your work schedule or other obligations.

During Exercise

Drinking just before a sports performance or during a game slows reaction time and negatively impacts coordination.

One of the most serious concerns of alcohol consumption while exercising is dehydration. Dehydration is already an issue for athletes due to losing fluids because of perspiration. Further exacerbating dehydration with alcohol increases the risk of:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Headache

After Exercise

Some athletes assume that once they complete an event or competition, there’s no harm in drinking alcohol. This might be true as long as they drink in moderation.

However, consuming alcohol further increases dehydration and interferes with the body’s ability to heal efficiently.

Alcohol also impacts hormone production. It increases cortisol and reduces testosterone. This negatively impacts muscle growth and recovery.

Additionally, binging increases the body’s parathyroid hormone level. This hormone plays an important role in the regulation of calcium. Athletes who chronically drink alcohol have an increased risk of bone fractures and a slower recovery time after a bone injury. 

Does Drinking Alcohol Reduce Stamina?

Yes. Alcohol affects the cardiopulmonary system, thus impacting stamina.

To properly train and compete at a high level, the body needs to get the necessary oxygen and fuel to muscles and nerves during exercise. 

Drinking too much alcohol affects aerobic performance. It also can cause oxygen to be cut off early, resulting in fatigue and poor performance.

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Why Some Athletes Abuse Alcohol

There are several reasons athletes abuse alcohol. For example:

Pressure to Perform

It’s common for athletes to feel pressure to perform at a high level. Some turn to alcohol as a way to cope with this pressure.

Cope with Mental Illness

Many athletes focus on their bodies and forget their mental health. This is partly because their bodies require so much attention to perform at their best. Therefore, mental health takes a backseat to physical health.

Alcohol may numb the emotional pain and anxiety that can come with mental illness. 

Additionally, alcohol increases feelings of confidence and relaxation. Alcohol is also easily accessible and legal. This means that athletes, like many people, use alcohol to “self-medicate.”

Deal with Physical Pain

Athletes face an increased risk of injury because of the strain they put on their bodies. Some turn to alcohol to numb their pain. This is especially true for those dealing with chronic or nagging injuries.

Peer Pressure

College athletes, especially, have a higher risk of developing unhealthy drinking habits. This is because they’re in an environment where alcohol consumption occurs at a higher rate. Many feel pressure to drink in college to fit in or to relax at social events.

Retirement

Some athletes struggle as they age and can no longer participate in their sport. Some turn to alcohol to cope with the difficult transition and the lack of focus in their lives.

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Can You Be Athletic and Drink Alcohol?

Moderation is key. Moderate alcohol consumption is far safer than binging. It also matters when you drink. It is often fine for athletes to drink moderate amounts of alcohol, but it is best to discuss with your healthcare provider and coach before doing so.

Avoid alcohol intake in the hours before an athletic competition or performance. You might want to give up drinking alcohol if you’re training for a specific incident or event.

Some athletes find that drinking moderately during their “off-season” has little to no impact on their performance.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse

There are several treatment options for excessive alcohol consumption. For example:

Counseling

Counseling is a great option for treating alcohol abuse. In addition to attending 12-step program meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, speaking with a counselor helps you identify your reasons for drinking. Counselors also work with alcohol abusers to develop better coping strategies.

Medications

Many people have success using medication to treat chronic alcohol abuse. 

These medications decrease the urge to drink by causing unpleasant side effects after alcohol consumption. 

The most common medications used to treat alcohol abuse include:

  • Acamprosate
  • Baclofen
  • Disulfiram

Rehab

Rehab for alcohol abuse includes a variety of therapy options, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Aversion therapy
  • Group psychotherapy
  • Behavioral therapy

Summary

Athletes face a variety of risks when they consume alcohol. The effects of alcohol interfere with athletic performance and make recovery more difficult. 

Athletes risk turning to alcohol to cope with the emotional and physical demands they place on themselves. Those struggling with alcohol use can turn to various treatment approaches to help them deal with their issues.

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Updated on October 31, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. RD, Claire Siekaniec, MS. “The Effects of Alcohol on Athletic Performance.” National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2017.
  2. Vella, Luke D., and David Cameron-Smith. “Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery.” Nutrients, 2010.
  3. Volpe, Stella Lucia. “Alcohol and Athletic Performance.” ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 2010.
  4. National Collegiate Athletic Association. “The Athlete’s Kitchen: Alcohol & Athletes.” NCAA.org, 2016.
  5. Nelson, Toben F., and Henry Wechsler. “Alcohol and College Athletes.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2001.
  6. Maylor, E. A., et al. “Effects of Alcohol, Practice, and Task Complexity on Reaction Time Distributions.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1992.

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