I’ve never been a huge drinker. While I enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner, a beer at happy hour with friends, or a Bloody Mary at brunch, I’ve always had an inexplicable level of self-restraint paired with a desire to not be drunk. So, the thought of cutting out alcohol entirely doesn’t seem like a major life overhaul.
I made the decision to quit drinking, albeit temporarily, the summer I trained for a half-marathon. If you’ve ever attempted a long run the morning after a night out, you know why I quit: Each step feels more laborious than usual, your sweat has a distinct wine aroma, and you're wondering how the sun could possibly be that bright. But, that’s the dilemma when you’re logging more and more miles on each run — you want to finish them early, so you don’t waste your entire day prepping and recovering. If you sleep in, you risk running through the midday heat wave. Trading a sober summer for a strong race-day finish seemed worth it, to me. Plus, bottomless brunch would still be there after my race.
The relationship between booze and exercise is, let's say, fluid. On one hand, alcohol is a diuretic and can leave you dehydrated during a long run. On the other hand, obstacle-course races like the Warrior Dash have beer stations at the post-race party. (PSA: Never work out while boozing, when you wake up still drunk, or when you're nursing a particularly rough hangover.)
Even if there presumably isn’t alcohol remaining in my bloodstream the morning after a big night, I still notice a dip in performance after I've been drinking, no matter how many glasses I had. Perhaps the biggest culprit is how drinking affects sleep. While alcohol has been shown to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep (hence, nightcap) it reduces REM sleep and leaves you feeling less-rested the next morning. Also, drinking culture promotes staying out late, and this throws off your slumber schedule. Sleeping is one of the most important things an athlete can do (well, besides training); it's when the body repairs and rebuilds muscle.
When you’re training for a race, you instinctively adjust your social life: You don’t stay out as late (so you can get up to run), and you avoid contact with anyone who sneezes or sniffles. These are sacrifices I’m happy to make on occasion.
And, when I cut out booze, I feel stronger — mentally and physically — during my training sessions. I've now started curbing my drinking even when I’m not training for a specific race; for me, fitness is a priority, and drinking means a more sluggish workout. I've found that exercise also happens to be a socially acceptable “excuse” for not having another margarita: Friends, dates, and strangers alike give me a nod of understanding (and maybe a hint of admiration?) when I mention I have a morning workout and call it a night.
Sometimes, I need my initial game-plan to be extreme for it to stick (when I gave up diet soda, I cut it out cold-turkey for two years — and now I drink my once-a-week can without relapsing into a diet-soda binge). But, ultimately, I want a plan that's sustainable, and I do enjoy the occasional cocktail. So, while I've completed races since that no-booze half-marathon, I haven't cut alcohol out entirely; I just plan ahead. Like most other things, it's a give-and-take to find the balance that works best. Some athletes are also champion drinkers, while others are teetotalers. As for me, while I'm certainly not partying before a major workout, sometimes a post-run brew is exactly what my body wants.