We all know that alcohol isn’t the best pre-workout supplement, yet at some point or other, we’ve all tried to push through a gym session the morning after the night before. Writer Charlotte Robinson mulls over the unexpected fitness benefits she’s experienced since going teetotal.
It’s a Sunday morning, and ordinarily, I would be wallowing in bed doing my best Bridget Jones impression. But this morning is different. I’m sliding out of bed, scraping my hair up into a bun, and pulling on my gym clothes. The customary weekend fog is conspicuously absent, and I head for the door with the kind of smugness reserved only for those who’ve stuck to the non-alcoholic beverages the night before.
A short while ago, I made the decision to give up alcohol, which came as much of a surprise to me as everyone else. While fitness didn’t really play a part in my decision to ditch the booze, I’ve found that going teetotal has helped my workouts in more ways than I could have predicted.
Exercising on a hangover is a false economy
I got into weight training in 2019 after starting a job at a gym. Up until then, my only forays into exercise had been an annual jog, the odd gym class, and a love-hate relationship with the cross trainer.
But a major obstacle in my fitness journey was my drinking routine. I found it all too easy to skip exercise when I was hungover, struggling on a Monday from lack of sleep, or feeling poorly fuelled from eating a nutritionally-valueless diet Monday to Friday. I found myself sleeping through opportunities to move.
There were, of course, days when I did overcome the herculean task of dragging myself out of bed to exercise the morning after a night out. Despite the fatigue and nausea, I pushed on with the aim of using my workouts to ‘sweat out’ the night before. But that whole concept is little more than a myth. “Psychologically sometimes people feel better,” GP and personal trainer Dr Folusha Oluwajana tells Stylist. “But there’s nothing you can physically do to help your body get rid of alcohol any quicker. It just needs to go through the normal processes of metabolizing it through your liver.”
In fact she advises that you could actually be worse off: “If you are dehydrated, and then do a high intensity workout which makes you sweat more, this will contribute to further dehydration.”
And it’s no secret that you’re dehydrated when you’re hungover. “Alcohol is a diuretic, it makes you lose more water than you actually take in”, Dr Oluwajana explains. “Just being about 1-2% dehydrated can affect cognitive brain performance and physical performance.”
On the days that I did make it to the gym on a hazy weekend morning, I may have been making myself mentally feel better, but physically I was really testing my body.
But alcohol impacted my workouts even when I wasn’t hungover
OK, so having a rubbish workout when you’re hungover is hardly breaking news – but what I hadn’t anticipated seeing was an improvement between my non-hangover workouts pre- and post-giving up alcohol. I’ve reached new personal bests since going teetotal; I’m currently shoulder pressing the highest weight I’ve achieved and I’m the closest I’ve ever been to an unassisted pull up. And it turns out that this isn’t just anecdotal evidence.
“Alcohol directly impacts muscle protein synthesis – that’s the creation of new protein molecules in your muscle – which is going to affect your ability to become stronger or more powerful”, says Dr Oluwajana.
By giving up alcohol, I’ve allowed my body the chance it needs to recuperate after exercise, which is having a knock-on effect on my progress. This has injected a real excitement into my workouts; rather than it seeming like a chore, I’m genuinely keen to see what I can achieve on a weekly basis at the gym.
Given that muscle recovery is key to becoming fitter and stronger, it’s a false economy to try to squeeze in a workout before a night of slamming shots.
“Drinking alcohol is often linked to impaired hormone function, which is required in order to repair muscles after intense exercise”, Dr Oluwajana notes. “If you’re working out and then very soon after drinking alcohol, that’s going to impact your body’s recovery.”
Poor sleep and aching muscles = rubbish recovery
After speaking to some friends about this, it seems we’ve all reached the same conclusion: our muscles ache even more the next day if we’ve exercised before a night on the town.
Another change I’ve noticed is my increased energy levels. Not only am I training more frequently, but I’m training harder than I used to. I feel less sluggish and bloated, and it’s all down to the time I spend in the land of nod.
“That was the lack of genuine sleep”, Dr Oluwajanaa tells me. “Even if you’ve slept for eight hours, quality is just as important as quantity. If that quantity doesn’t get you through all the stages – your light sleep, your REM, your deep sleep – then it’s not optimal sleep.”
This rings true for me. Often I would wake up after a night of drinking assuming that because I’d slept for several hours, I would be fine. But I would spend most of the week tired, only feeling energised Wednesday onwards – and by Friday, I’d be doing it all over again.
Choosing balance rather than perfection
Of course, not everyone drinks to excess, and for many, giving up alcohol isn’t something they feel compelled to do. It’s also not an easy thing to carry out; alcohol is a major component of most people’s socialising. But it doesn’t have to be an either-or lifestyle choice.
While going teetotal was right for me, I definitely don’t think that you’ve got to choose between being a modern day Lindsay Lohan circa 2007 or a Goop puritan. As with everything, there’s a healthy middle ground. “You can enjoy alcohol in moderation – as part of a healthy lifestyle – by following the national guidelines,” says Dr Oluwajana. “Just try not to drink close to exercise, whether it’s before or after.”
We know what’s best for our bodies, goals and lifestyles, so I’m not here to suggest that you should prioritise your workouts above having a wine-fuelled dinner with your pals. But for me, sobriety suits me for where I’m at now. If you are looking to hit some new PBs or want that extra bit of motivation or energy, then giving up the sauce may be worth an (alcohol-free) shot.
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