Alcohol and cycling: The truth behind beer and bikes

Alcohol and cycling aren’t exactly happy bedfellows but, for many, they’re certainly lifelong companions. As it’s the season of goodwill, where corks are popping and inhibitions dropping, we thought it apt to ruin the Xmas atmos by seeing what alcohol does to your body and cycling performance. (Okay, it’s not that bad in moderation; in fact, it’s eye-opening. Read onto find out more…)

Cycling’s relationship with alcohol has always been confused. Take five-time Tour de France victor Jacques Anquetil whose main passions were reportedly drinking and women. Legend has it that the French rider refused to start the 1964 edition of the GP Rasoir Philips, a 230km semi-classic race in the Haute-Loire region of France. Unfortunately for Anquetil and the spectators, he couldn’t agree a starting fee with the organiser so called off his appearance and went partying with friends instead, drinking whisky and champagne till the early hours. After a half-hour’s kip, the organiser knocked on his hotel door with the cash. Dishevelled and apparently still drunk, the Frenchmen headed off the front… never to be seen again. Victory was his. But will it be yours when alcohol’s on the menu? Okay, we’re in the festive season where gluttony rules, so you might want to read this one come New Year’s Day. If you’re brave or teetotal, however, read on to see why we may not all do an Anquetil if we drink from dusk till dawn…

Physiology of suffering

Tensions rose at this year’s Tour after Jumbo-Visma team manager Richard Plugge revealed that riders from Groupama-FDJ were drinking during the race’s second rest day. Plugge told L’Equipe that his team’s success was down to an extreme attention to detail, including rarely drinking. “We were with a French team at our hotel during the rest day. We could see riders drinking large beers,” Plugge said. “Alcohol is poison and when you’re tired, it makes you more tired.”

Groupama-FDJ was the only French team sharing the same hotel in Saint Gervais. “Who does he think he is? Frankly, it’s an exceptionally vile attack on his part,” Groupama-FDJ team manager Marc Madiot responded. “Let him keep his mouth shut! I don’t intend to see him. I don’t care about him. I’m not going to go and see him. I’m angry. It’s pathetic. I don’t watch what he puts in his riders’ bowls.” ‘Mee’ and indeed ‘ow’. But Plugge had a point: alcohol is a poison. Or to give it its official title ‘ethyl alcohol’…

This is absorbed from the stomach and small intestine before flooding your lithe body via the bloodstream. According to the paper ‘Alcohol in the Body’, which featured in a 2015 edition of the British Medical Journal, how quickly it’s absorbed depends on a number of factors. As many of you are probably aware – and why a post-ride drink can hit you harder than normal – one of those factors is what’s in your stomach. If you drink on an empty one, that absorption is rapid; in fact, it’s at its most rapid when you drink an alcoholic beverage at 20-30% on an empty stomach. That’s the drunken ‘sweetspot’ as spirits (40% or more) delay gastric emptying and inhibit absorption. Then again, it’s not quite as simple as that as drinks with aerated carbon dioxide, like a whisky and soda or champagne (the bubbles…), channel into your system quicker, too. 

Once it’s in your system, very little alcohol enters fat because of fat’s poor solubility. This is why anecdotally women might feel or act drunker than men. “Blood and tissue [alcohol] concentrations are therefore higher in women, who have more subcutaneous fat and a smaller blood volume, than in men, even when the amount of alcohol consumed is adjusted for body weight,” reads the journal.

Blood alcohol concentration also varies according to size and body build, phase of menstrual cycle (it’s highest at pre-menstrual and ovulation phases), past experience of alcohol, type of drink and whether alcohol is taken with food or drugs.

Over 90% of alcohol that enters the body is oxidised in the liver to a non-toxic substance called ‘acetic acid’. Up to 5% is excreted unchanged in sweat, urine or, as many of your partners might testify, your breath. Your liver relies on enzymes ‘alcohol dehydrogenase’, or ALDH, to break down ethanol (alcohol) into acetaldehyde, before aldehyde dehydrogenase, or ADH, takes over and breaks down acetaldehyde into acetic acid. It’s been suggested that acetaldehyde is one of the key culprits behind the severity of a hangover. It’s also suggested the efficiency of these enzymes is diminished as we age and explains why hangovers feel far worse when you’re 40 compared to 20. Poor ol’ Valverde.

It takes about an hour for blood alcohol concentrations to peak depending on the amount drunk. Alcohol is then removed from the blood at around 3.3 mmol/hour (15 mg/100 ml/hour) or around a unit an hour.

Keep in moderation

That’s the physiological back story. The problem is, the more you drink, the more your system’s put under strain, especially your metabolism with glucose production reduced and fatty acids converted into lipids and a fatty back. “Evidence shows that regular consumption of too much alcohol leads to increased risk of diabetes, liver disease, bone loss, coronary heart disease and, in women, breast cancer,” says nutritionist Lucy-Ann Prideaux. “Even ‘minor’ health complaints such as eczema, hormone imbalances and nervous complaints can often be linked back to regular alcohol consumption.”

Not good. But a silver lining to the grey cloud? No. “The digestive system bears much of the brunt of drinking alcohol, and regular consumption can lead to both minor and serious digestive complaints,” Prideaux adds. “Being an irritant, alcohol can inflame the stomach lining and small intestine, reduce the absorption of nutrients, stimulate the secretion of acidic gastric juices and, if heavy drinking persists, can lead to stomach ulcers, diarrhoea and vomiting.”

“Regular drinking also changes our appetite, perception and choices around food, and disrupts blood-sugar (glucose) levels and control, which can lead to cravings for sweet, starchy or high GI foods. For the cyclist, this could mean making poor carbohydrate choices, resulting in energy highs and lows. Levels of blood glucose ideally need to be kept steady throughout the day to keep energy levels up, control the appetite and boost concentration.”

Cycling and alcohol

One final alcoholic uppercut: too much drink stalls the secretion of human growth hormone (HGH), which is charged with repairing and rebuilding muscles by stimulating the liver and other tissues to make a protein called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Ostensibly, it does this during sleep. A study way back in 1980 in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism showed alcohol decreased HGH secretion by 25%.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy a drink or two with the NHS stating, “Men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. Spread your drinking over three or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week… Fourteen units is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of lower-strength wine.”

Beyond the physical – and, again, as we’re probably all aware – alcohol can affect cognitive function and decision-making. Which is why in 2020, Lotto-Soudal unfurled a blanket alcohol ban over riders and support staff alike. We couldn’t pin down the Belgian team pre-Christmas to see if it remained in place. We do know that the man who brought in the ruling, CEO John Lelangue, departed in the autumn of 2022. And we do know that the same year, they partnered with Thrive, “the world’s first non-alcoholic sports recovery beer. A tasty treat for riders after training and racing with an optimal mix of protein and carbohydrates”. As the team were relegated from the WorldTour that same year, neither were the finest advert for not drinking.

Fitter, stronger… drunker

Admittedly, this isn’t proving to be the most festive of pieces. “And one that doesn’t really apply to us committed road cyclists,” you say. “We’re fit as an ox and the poison barely touches our lips.” Hmmm…

A study from 2021 in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that individuals who work out regularly and have a higher level of aerobic fitness are more than twice as likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers as those who are out of shape. This supports a 2015 study that showed, for women, being highly fit more than doubled the odds of being a moderate or heavy drinker. For men it increased the odds by 63%. 

But why? It certainly goes against a psychological phenomenon termed ‘habit clustering’ where one good habit is followed by another. Instead, it’s argued, it’s down to the ‘licensing effect’; in other words, when you feel like you’ve done something ‘good’, you reward yourself by letting yourself do something ‘bad’.

Another theory derives from a 2014 study out of the University of Houston that suggested both exercise and alcohol rewarded the same sensation-seeking part of the brain, which thrives on dopamine. Further work by the same researcher graded four separate motivations for coupling exercise and alcohol: work hard, play hard; celebration; body image; and guilt. In the first two, exercise leads to drinking; in the latter two, drinking leads to exercise.

Evidence-based hangover advice

It’s a complicated picture. While prevention’s always better than a cure, wishing you all a merry Christmas with advice to banish the finest malbec from your wine rack is a surefire way to lose you as a valued subscriber. What we can do is recommend a handful of ways to dampen the pain from drinking…

1 Drink water. Alcohol’s a diuretic, so drinking one glass of water per glass of vin rouge can help you stay hydrated. A carafe for the sophisticated devils at the back.

2 Avoid the congeners. Some alcoholic drinks contain chemicals known as congeners. These are chemicals that occur naturally as a result of the distilling and fermenting processes. Unfortunately, they’re impurities that can contribute to the hangover. Drinks high in congeners are whisky (especially bourbons like JD), tequila and cognac; drinks low in congeners are gin, rum and vodka.

3 Sleep well. Okay, this might not be possible on the night of your debauchery, but a lie-in and early to bed the following day will help your body recover.

4 Supplement your recovery. There’s evidence that you suffer from low-level inflammation when you have a hangover. Anti-inflammatories like red ginseng may help.

5 Eat before drinking. As we highlighted earlier, drinking on an empty stomach is the fast-track way to Armageddon. So, eat a good meal before drinking. A good breakfast the following day will help, too, as low glycogen levels make the symptoms worse.

6 Hair of the dog? To drink or not to drink… The idea is that hangovers are a form of withdrawal, so a glass or two will ease the withdrawal. Sadly, that’s not true. It just makes things worse. 

Can you cycle on a hangover?

This all leaves one final, very important question: can you cycle on a hangover? Or, more accurately, should you cycle on a hangover?

“Contrary to popular belief it’s not possible to sweat alcohol out of the body,” says Prideaux. “And no, you can’t speed this up by sitting in the sauna for hours or doing a mammoth training session. Both are futile measures which only serve to worsen the symptoms.”

Cycling and alcohol

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cycle. You should just ensure that you’re honest with yourself about your state of being, drink (non-alcoholic electrolyte drink) regularly and ride easy. We all know that cycling’s wonderful for stimulating a surge of hormones, like endorphins and adrenaline, that boost energy, motivation and mood. And as alcohol is a depressant, that’s certainly no bad thing.

This is an empirical sport so to gauge if you’re actually fit – and safe – enough to ride, check your heart rate when you awake. If it’s around 10bpm higher than your normal resting heart rate, your body’s working too hard to clear the alcohol so it’s probably best not to. If you do, you could put your body under too much stress, which’ll impact your immune system and could result in a rather ill festive period. Those with techy training tools like Whoop can also check your heart rate variability score, which might indicate that you’ve struggled through the night and it’s best to take it easy. If you’re touch and go, you could always roll out an easy session on the turbo trainer.

The no-alcohol route

Then again, you could always go the no- and low-alcohol beer route. Many are. In July, Tesco reported that non-alcoholic beer sales were up 25% compared to the start of the year, highlighting it wasn’t just a Dry January fad. Guinness said it would triple production of its zero-alcohol brand.

In pubs, sales of low and no-alcohol beer have also jumped by 23% during the past year compared with the previous 12 months, and have more than doubled since 2019, just prior to the pandemic. At least 85% of UK pubs – around 39,000 – now offer at least one low- or no-alcohol beer alongside their usual ranges of alcohol-free options. One of those is The Lucky Saint Pub deep in the heart of London’s West End. It was opened earlier this year by Lucky Saint. We covered the opening here

There are certainly performance benefits behind a post-ride non-alcoholic beverage as some offerings contain similar amounts of carbohydrate to isotonic drinks plus a swathe of electrolytes. In fact, authors of a study into marathon runners who drunk non-alcoholic beer compared to the alcoholic alternative showed that the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections – common in cycling – were over three times lower than the drinkers. The researchers put this down to the antioxidant properties of the polyphenol compounds found in the non-alcoholic beer. Physical activity increases levels of inflammation in the body and although athletes are likely to have efficient systems to reduce this inflammation, food and drink rich in antioxidants, including fruit, dark chocolate and nuts, could promote this recovery.

All in all, if you are a rider who enjoys a craft ale and glass of wine, crack on. Just remember that once the festive merriment has died down, drink in moderation and ride to excess. Do that and you’ll hit your cycling goals… and be able to celebrate afterwards. Merry Christmas…!

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