What Does Alcohol Really Do to Your Fitness?

Alcohol consumption is not a complete no-no if you are trying to improve your health and fitness through exercise, but you do need to be aware of what it does to your body and how that can impact on your progress. 

Alcohol and your performance

All exercise requires a degree of coordination. You will need to coordinate different limbs in a sequence to execute the movement you have in mind. Alcohol is a diuretic. When you drink it, you’ll become dehydrated, and alcohol-induced dehydration can affect your motor skills, balance, and coordination.

Your brain is 75% water, so even 2% dehydration can affect brain function dramatically. When working out, you need to decide if a weight is too heavy, or if you need longer to rest. If you decide unwisely, you can hurt yourself. By being clear headed, you make better choices that affect your long-term progress.

According to Dr. Kelly Starrett (physical therapist and author), if you’re 1% dehydrated your aerobic capacity will decrease by 10-15%. So not only will you be unable to move as well or think quickly on your feet, but your lungs will let you down too.

Energy levels also dip when you drink alcohol. Your liver reduces glucose production to prioritise processing alcohol. Glucose is a source of energy, and your workout quality will be reduced if you lack sufficient energy to complete it.

Your motivation can suffer too. Does anyone ever really feel like working out when hung over? It can be difficult enough to get primed and ready to work out on regular days. When you add in alcohol, you create an additional hurdle that limits your motivation to work out, and thus impacts your progress.

Alcohol and your metabolism 

Alcohol causes metabolic issues on two fronts when it comes to exercising.

a. Low blood sugar: alcohol can interfere with your metabolism by increasing insulin secretion. Increased insulin secretion leads to low blood sugar. As you need sugar in your blood stream to provide energy to exercise, when alcohol is in your system you can expect to feel sluggish while you work out.

b. Prioritising an unwanted energy source: when you exercise, your body has a variety of energy sources available for fuel. The most desirable energy source is stored fat (the source everyone wants to burn more of when working out). But when your liver processes alcohol, your body will have ethanol in its system. Because ethanol is toxic in large quantities, your body will prioritise burning that as a fuel source instead of stored fat.

Alcohol and your recovery 

To maintain a healthy lifestyle and achieve health and fitness goals, quality recovery is essential. But alcohol affects your sleep quality, reducing the time you spend in deep sleep, meaning you spend more time in REM and lighter sleep cycles. This is significant because it’s during deep sleep that your body produces hormones that facilitate lean muscle development. 

Additionally, light alcohol consumption has been shown to increase strength losses and increase the time necessary to recover after you’ve worked out, and heavy alcohol consumption has been shown to increase recovery time required from soft tissue injuries like sprains and strains.

If you make the decision to drink alcohol, you need to manage your expectations and look at your training schedule. Here are three tips to help you enjoy drinking alcohol occasionally and still pursue your health and fitness goals.

1. Expect the process to take longer 

As soon as alcohol enters the picture, you can expect that the timeline you’ve set to achieve your goals will be longer than expected if those goals can be achieved at all.

Your body will operate less efficiently if you drink alcohol than if you don’t. Regardless of your goals, you’ll be exercising with the intention of making improvements. If alcohol is in the mix, your best intentions will be jeopardised.

2. Time your workouts 

You need to allow for alcohol to be fully processed before exercising. An important part of exercising with a health and fitness goal in mind is consistency. For this reason, if you plan to drink, allow yourself enough time to fully process the alcohol you’ve consumed before you hit the gym (i.e. 48-72 hours). By doing this you’ll go to the gym ready to perform at your best, and this is how you’ll achieve your goals.

3. Try cutting out alcohol for a week

After taking a booze break, work out as you usually do and see how you feel. After that, go back to your usual routine, then compare the two weeks. Did you perform as well in the gym as usual? Do you feel better by not drinking alcohol or maintaining the status quo? If you feel better by not drinking alcohol, then maybe you’re onto something.


James Staring is the founder and lead fitness coach at Fit to Last Personal Trainers, which offers a high-end, all-inclusive fitness solution for those who’ve tried everything in the past; crash diets, exercise fads, regular gyms etc., all with little to no success or results. Fit to Last works in partnership with you to create a personalised programme of exercise, nutrition (no calorie counting or weighing) and small, simple lifestyle changes, to keep you on track to your goals, injury free and bursting with energy. See: www.fittolast.co.uk