BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
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Question: Is beer good for rowers?
Answer: “Sure, if it’s the other rower drinking it!”
By abstaining from alcohol, you can indeed gain an advantage over your competitor’s poor judgment. Just how bad is alcohol for rowers? Does it have any health benefits, too? Let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding alcohol and athletes.
• The good: Socializing with a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail can add a nice touch to the end of the day for rowers who like to relax with an alcoholic beverage. Raising a glass to celebrate a victory is a fond tradition. But we know surprisingly little about the possible health benefits of drinking in moderation because almost all studies are based on self-reported information that gets tangled up with lifestyle. Do adults who are moderate social drinkers enjoy a healthier lifestyle than non- or heavy drinkers? Does alcohol make their bodies healthier or do social connections make the difference? While moderate alcohol intake has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, so has eating a healthy diet and being physically active.
• The bad: Athletes have a bad reputation when it comes to alcohol, be it heavy beer consumption after a hard workout or teams enmeshed in a culture of binge drinking. Student-athletes binge-drink more than non-athletes. Male athletes binge-drink more than female athletes. And all athletes drink more than non-athletes. The higher alcohol intake of athletes can be attributed to stress and anxiety associated with competition, increased muscle pain and soreness, socializing or bonding with teammates, and the belief athletes have “earned” a drink as a reward for having completed hard effort.
• The ugly: Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. (Tobacco is Number One. A poor diet with an inactive lifestyle is Number Two.) Any level of alcohol intake can contribute to several types of cancer.
How do you know if you have a drinking problem?
Moderate drinkers typically sip (rather than gulp) their drinks, stop drinking before they get drunk, and do not drive after drinking. Problem drinkers commonly drink to get drunk and to solve their problems. They drink at inappropriate times (such as before going to work) and may become loud/angry or silent/reclusive. People addicted to alcohol begin drinking with no plan, deny drinking, hide bottles, and miss work or school because of hangovers.
Despite the bad and the ugly, alcohol is an undeniable part of our sports culture. Here are some suggestions for helping rowers manage alcohol:
• Don’t drink excessive alcohol before a regatta, especially in the summer heat. Drinking too much the night before an event will hurt your performance the next day. You’ll notice a slower reaction time and reduced eye-hand coordination and balance—important skills for rowers.
• Research with Australian rugby players who consumed an average of nine beers after the game (with a range of from less than one to 22 beers) indicates—no surprise— that high alcohol intake impaired their performance. Other studies show athletes are less able to do repeated sprints (think soccer, hockey) and jump (volleyball, basketball). Among heat-stricken summer runners, a common denominator was booze the night before the race.
• If you’re going to drink the night before or after a rowing event, plan also to consume a proper sports meal with extra water. While excessive drinking is obviously problematic, a modest amount of alcohol consumed with a balanced meal is less likely to have a negative impact. Yes, alcohol impairs glycogen re-synthesis a bit. But in the real world of sports drinking, rowers who are heavy drinkers tend to make high-fat food choices (nachos, burgers, etc.). The lack of healthful grains, fruits, and veggies (carbohydrates) hinders glycogen replacement significantly.
• Quench your post-row thirst first with water, then enjoy alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic; it stimulates the formation of excess urine. Whiskey and other spirits with a high alcohol content will dehydrate (not rehydrate) you. If you must drink spirits, ask for extra ice with the cocktail. Beer would be the better choice, because the alcohol content of beer is lower and the water content higher. Yes, dehydrated adult rowers can rehydrate with a beer or two. Low-alcohol beer is the wiser choice, and no-alcohol beer is the wisest.
• Heavy alcohol intake is not on the list of Best Recovery Practices for rowers. Remember: Bad things happen during exercise, and good things happen during recovery. Wisely chosen recovery fluids and foods help you rehydrate, refuel, and repair your muscles. Adding alcohol to the mix slows down muscle repair, protein synthesis, and adaptation processes. But a glass or two of wine or beer, along with plenty of water and food, is permissible.
• Alcohol is a source of calories that can add up quickly. Add the calories in the pizza, nachos, or munchies that you can overeat easily when alcohol lowers your inhibitions and you can gain body fat in no time. Just five Heineken light beers add 500 calories. An eight-ounce goblet of wine can add 200 calories. Be extra wary of drinks that come with umbrellas (400 to 800 calories per 10 ounces).
• Beware of drinks in a can, such as White Claw Surge with eight percent alcohol by volume. (ABV). You can end up drinking more alcohol than you intended. You might want to stick with the original White Claw—hard seltzer with five percent ABV—similar to most canned beers, though some craft beers have higher alcohol content.
• Don’t drink alcohol if you want a good night’s sleep. Alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts your sleep cycle. You’ll get less restorative sleep. Alcohol alters body temperature, which can affect how well you sleep. It also aggravates snoring (owing to relaxed muscles and a lower breathing rate), so your bed partner becomes sleep-deprived and grumpy. Plus, you’ll need to go to the bathroom more often in the middle of the night. None of this enhances athletic performance.
• If you don’t want to drink, be prepared to say “No thanks” in a polite but convincing voice. If the person keeps insisting, respond: “I don’t want to drink today. I’d appreciate it if you’d help me out.” Be pleased that you’ll enjoy the natural high of exercise.
Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., counsels both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for information.