You’ve been planning that after-work exercise session, you’re pumped, but before leaving the office, your colleagues invite you for a drink. It’d be rude to say no, and, anyway, you were looking forward to a catch-up, so you decide on just one, thinking you can always head to the gym a little later. But is this such a good idea? Should you really try working out after drinking?
Many of us struggle to understand what goes on behind the scenes when we drink. Sure, we know that after a couple, we feel tipsy and following an entire session that workout is best left for another day. But what exactly is happening to your body and how much alcohol is it safe to drink before working out, if any?
To uncover the answers to these important questions, let’s dive a little deeper into your body’s structure and discover how drink affects you.
What alcohol does to your body?
Let’s go on a journey, and it all begins as soon as you take your first sip of that delicious drink.
Almost immediately, ethanol is absorbed, traveling through your system and into your bloodstream, making its way around your entire body. In total, this takes around 30-90 minutes.
However, you may feel the effects of that first drink within just a few – the release of dopamine to the reward center of your brain, to be precise. This means you are more likely to feel relaxed and social. Feeling ready for that next drink or perhaps even more pumped to head to the gym?
But…behind the scenes, alcohol is already affecting other areas of your body and brain.
When you drink, your brain’s neurotransmitters are suppressed – slowing speech and movement. Leading you to become clumsier, your balance to be off, your eyesight to be effect and your speech to eventually slur. Depending on how much you have drunk.
In addition, the chemical reactions in your brain can affect your decision-making skills, leading you to make some not so wise choices.
Meanwhile, the rest of your system is processing the booze. Your stomach may become irritated, leading you to feel a little queasy. Alcohol is a diuretic, leading your body to produce more urine than usual, which could leave you dehydrated if you’re not careful.
Your liver is also pretty busy processing the alcohol headed its way. The body breaks down C2H5OH, the active chemical in your beverages, at a rate of approximately one unit of alcohol per hour, depending on a variety of factors – weight, height, metabolism, the food you’ve eaten, etc.
But what is this mysterious one unit?
Let’s take a look at standard drinks and their units:
- 25ml of spirits at 40% alc./vol. – 1 unit
- 275ml alcopop at 5.5% alc./vol. – 1.5 units
- 330ml bottle of beer at 5% – 1.7 units
- A pint of beer at 5.2% alc./vol. – 3 units
- Large glass of wine at 12% alc./vol. – 3 units
So that large glass of wine or that pint? It’s not just one unit you’re having.
Drinking alcohol before working out – a good idea?
Now that we know what’s going on behind the scenes, we can get back to that all-important question – should you exercise after drinking alcohol?
Before we break it down in numbers, let’s take account of a few important facts about drinking and exercising:
- Reaction time. Alcohol affects how well we react to stimuli, the messages in our brain are slower to connect meaning we might just not be able to react in time to prevent accidents from happening if we’ve had a couple before hitting the gym. That could mean some nasty treadmill injuries or not fully accounting for the weight of that weight-lifting.
- Hydration station. As we know, alcohol is a diuretic, it makes us go to the toilet more often leading to dehydration. But, to have an effective workout routine, your body needs adequate aqua to keep it moving. This is essential for all-natural processes to be completed, for example, carrying oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, allowing your routine to be effective.
- Sugar crisis. As your body, and more precisely your liver, concentrates on getting rid of the ethanol in your system, it places everything else on the back burner. And that means your glucose production too. Glucose is required to give your body energy, and when you work out you need an extra boost. So, if you’ve been drinking before that session, you could be in for an uphill challenge.
As humans, we often like to push the limits, to know how much is too much; so let’s keep it simple:
1 drink (1 unit)
If you’re just out of the bar after you’ve had one singular drink, then it might be ok for you to continue with your evening exercise plans…just wait an hour before you do. This allows your system to process what’s in your body, gives you the opportunity to chug that water like there’s no tomorrow and perhaps have a little healthy bite to eat.
Head to that workout too soon as you might still experience those effects of coordination trouble and dehydration.
2 drinks (2 units)
Let’s say that one sneaky drink turned into two, is it still ok to hit the gym? Hmm, we’d head home at this point, think of that night of self-care and relaxation, but if you’re really driven to continue with your plans, then you’re going to have to wait a while. Current advice suggests you take a break of 2.5-3 hours before a workout attempt. So, if you're still with your friends, switch to water, hydrate and try to rustle up some snacks to get your ready while you wait.
Essentially, you’re in the “maybe it’s not a good idea” territory here, so if you choose to fit in a session, be careful and get hydrated first.
3 or more drinks (3+ units)
Wow! This seems to be turning out to be quite the evening. Are you sure you want to leave now? In any case, whether you choose to head on home or continue with that after work party, exercise while drunk is never a good idea. You might not notice it right this second, but that alcohol is really making its presence felt in your body. Heading to the gym now is risky business, akin to running through the streets drinking; you might be pretty clumsy, risking injury to yourself, and dehydrated. So, the best solution is to take the night off. There is always tomorrow…if you feel up to it.
Exercising the next day?
As your body is still healing from the effects, you might find your performance is not quite up to scratch.
This is because your liver might still be busy processing the excess drinks you had the night before, meaning that energy-giving glucose can’t be produced to its full effect.
But, if you didn’t have too many, and wake up feeling like your usual self. Follow these top tips to boost your morning after routine:
- Hydrate sensibly. I know, we keep repeating it, but it’s true. Water is the best cure for getting your body back to normal.
- Eat healthy. Ensure you eat a breakfast rich in nutrients to keep you going.
- Don’t push yourself too hard. It was a tough night, no need to make it a tough morning. So, take a step back on your usual targets.
And remember if you have a hangover, best wait it out in comfort, and wait for another time.