By J. E. Hinners, MD MPH The workday’s over, and you may have a couple priorities on your list: a) working out, and b) relaxing with friends over a drink or two.
So which timing poses the lesser of two evils: workout before happy hour or happy hour before workout?
To be clear, this article is not exactly intended to suggest that drinking alcoholic beverages is a health-promoting behavior. On the contrary, mixing alcohol with exercise can pose a number of detrimental health effects–regardless of which activity comes first.
However, the reality is that for many people, a typical day might involve some combination of both a fitness routine and a “relaxation routine” that involves a fermented beverage of one kind or another.
I have not yet uncovered studies directly comparing the differing effects of drinking before versus after working out. But here is what is known to happen acutely when you drink BEFORE working out:
- You are more prone to injuring yourself during your workout, as judgement and psychomotor skills may be impaired.
- You increase your acute risk for dehydration during exercise, which can also lead to overheating conditions such as heat stroke.
- You set yourself up to exercise with depleted glycogen levels. Your skeletal muscles need and use glucose from glycogen as fuel for working out, so you’ll be exercising on low “fuel” levels which appears to do the following:
And here is what is known to happen acutely when you drink AFTER working out:
- Skeletal muscle protein synthesis is reduced. When you work out, your skeletal muscles essentially become damaged and break down before they are subsequently built back up again by proteins. So protein is essential for the body to recover after exercise. The supplementation of post-workout alcohol with protein does not appear to make up for this protein loss (although it is still better than supplementing post-workout alcohol with carbohydrates). Older age appears to further accentuate this reduced protein synthesis resulting from post-workout alcohol.
- Power output appears to diminish in those who regularly exercise and drink after working out. This finding was true for those drinking moderately (at least 1 gram of ethanol per kilogram of bodyweight); those drinking at low alcohol levels (.5 grams of ethanol per kilogram of bodyweight) did not experience the same effects.
Acute versus more general, chronic effects
Note that the alcohol effects listed for both timings above are mostly acute effects. Some of the more general, chronic effects of alcohol on the athlete are discussed in greater detail here. These general effects include nearly all effects listed above (regardless of when the alcohol was consumed) plus additional effects.
So what is the verdict?
I don’t think the answer here is very clear-cut, as there really aren’t any studies directly comparing the differing effects between the two timings.
But I lean towards choosing an alcoholic beverage before exercise rather than after exercise because I tend to view the post-exercise phase as a time when the body is somewhat in an emergency state trying to recover from the muscle breakdown.
I also find it interesting that alcohol before exercise appears to enhance fat metabolism (at least in well-conditioned athletes), which seems to me to give one positive point to enjoying a happy hour before the workout.
The best answer may differ according to each individual, depending on previous physical and fitness conditions and depending on types of exercise performed.
In my case, for example, I am not downhill skiing for my workouts, and I don’t use heavy weights. For those who perform exercise where judgement and coordination are critical for ensuring safety, however, it’s probably wiser to opt for working out prior to enjoying happy hour.
When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to check with your own healthcare practitioner who can help discern which timing would be more optimal for you, depending on your own health and physical activity circumstances.
For those who care about most optimizing health and athletic performance, however, the best choice is if you can eliminate alcohol from your diet altogether!
Have you had any personal experiences (good or bad) related to alcohol consumption either before or after exercise? If so, we’d love to hear about it!