I stood at the end of a ridiculously grueling trail amid the red cliffs of Western Colorado. Around me, runners enjoyed various cold, locally brewed beers wrapped in neoprene sleeves emblazoned with a sketch of the mountain we'd just torn up and down and the words "I survived the Summit and Plummet." It was not yet 11 AM; we'd just finished one of the hardest 5-mile runs in North America. We'd earned those beers. At least, that's what we told ourselves.
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It's a common ritual among my running buddies. We run, then we drink. And we're not alone. The outfit that organized today's informal run often congregates at Grand Junction's Kannah Creek Brewing Company following its weekly trail runs. Paonia's Elegantly Attired Running Ladies, my women's group, meets every Friday evening for a run that finishes at Revolution Brewing. And then there's the famous Hash House Harriers, with chapters around the world, which calls itself a drinking club with a running problem. Among runners, coffee is perhaps the only beverage more popular than beer.
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My friends and I often joke that we're carbo-loading when we split a six pack together, but once in a while I wake up groggy and wonder: Could my drinking habit be hurting my running? (Search: What’s the right way to carbo-load?)
Turns out the research on alcohol and exercise is as herky-jerky as our culture's attitude toward the bottle. Most early studies investigated alcohol's potential as a performance enhancer. It seems ridiculous now, but during the 1904 Olympic Marathon, US gold medalist Thomas Hicks was given a mixture of brandy, strychnine, and egg whites in an effort to gain a competitive edge. Many coaches then believed alcohol boosted energy.
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In more recent years, not surprisingly, that belief has been largely disproved. One study on sprint-and middle-distance runners, for example, found that at most distances the more alcohol the athletes had, the slower they ran. Still, another study on male cyclists found that drinking the equivalent of two shots of hard liquor one hour before exercising didn't give athletes any distinct advantages, nor did it significantly harm heart rate, blood pressure, or oxygen uptake. Even a hangover doesn't seem to diminish your aerobic capacity—it just makes you feel lousy, so you underperform. But at the same time, there's evidence to suggest that drinking after a workout might spoil recovery of muscle damage and reduce the amount of energy stored in muscles.
So what was all this conflicting information really telling me? Being a former scientist, I had my own theories about how drinking and running mix, and I couldn't resist putting them to the test. The nearby Colorado Mesa University had just opened the Monfort Family Human Performance Research Lab, a state-of-the-art exercise-science facility that seemed like the perfect venue to explore alcohol's effects on running performance. My friend Gig Leadbetter, PhD, coaches the school's cross-country team and is an exercise scientist at the Monfort Lab. He's also a home brewer and winemaker and, without any arm-twisting, agreed to put together a study for Runner's World.
He decided to test whether drinking beer immediately following a hard run would sap performance the next day. Since men and women metabolize alcohol differently, he opted to test both and look for gender differences as well—something previous studies didn't examine. Part one of the experiment—the Beer Run—was a 45-minute, early evening run at an intensity that would require tapping into muscle-fuel stores, immediately followed by a serving of beer. Part two—the Exhaustion Run—would take place the next morning and provide a measure of the recovery. On this run, volunteers would run at 80 percent of their max for as long as they could tolerate.
Researchers tested the volunteers twice, using two unnamed beers and without divulging their alcoholic content. In Round One some runners consumed regular alcoholic beer—Fat Tire Amber Ale—while others had a nonalcoholic beer, O'Doul's Amber. (In Round Two, the beer options were reversed.) One would expect runners to run out of gas faster the morning after their Fat Tire run than they did the morning after drinking the O'Doul's. Real beer might also make the Exhaustion Run feel more difficult. Finally, real beer might alter the amounts of fat and carbohydrates our muscles burned for fuel.
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