You may have seen stories bouncing around last week about Lean Machine, a Canadian "recovery ale" that's expected to be sold as a sports drink later this year. And you may have filed that story away to use as justification for your next post-workout trip to the bar.
Without getting into all the various ways alcohol can do more harm than good, booze is particularly counterproductive after exercise. It messes with the body's ability to utilize testosterone and inhibits post-workout muscle growth. "We also know that alcohol can turnoff anti-diuretic hormones for up to 24 hours, meaning it dehydrates," says nutritionist Monique Ryan, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. "It can impair protein synthesis, too."
In other words, alcohol helps you recover like caffeine helps you calm down.
"Beer" and "alcohol" are not synonyms, however, and that's where Lean Machine comes in. It's just 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, for starters. That's the threshold for non-alcoholic beer (and less than what you can find in a lot of kombuchas). Lean Machine is basically nutrient-fortified O'Doul's.
That might make it an effective recovery drink. Back in 2011, researchers at a German university found that distance runners who drank two to three pints of non-alcoholic beer per day had less inflammation and fewer incidences of upper-respiratory infections than a group who drank the same volume of alcoholic beer.
The researchers suspected that the plant-based polyphenols found in beer support the immune system but that the alcohol in regular beer might cancel out those benefits.
Of course, the study looked only at the recovery effects of regular beer versus non-alcoholic beer. In that regard, alcohol-free brews win. But nothing in those results suggests that even non-alcoholic beer would be superior to a sports-specific recovery drink.
Another oft-cited and misunderstood study, this one out of Spain, found that post-workout beer helps athletes rehydrate faster than plain water. Subjects were given either two pints of beer or water after a vigorous workout, then allowed to drink as much water as they wanted. When they had their hydration levels tested, the beer group came out slightly ahead of the water-only group.
Some context: Water may be our most abundant hydration source, but it's not our most effective one. Sodium, potassium, and other substances commonly found in sports drinks (and, to a lesser extent, beer) open pathways that force extra water across the intestinal wall before it has a chance to empty into the bladder.
The researchers suspect that this is what was happening here—that the sugars and salts in the beer helped transport more of the water that followed. Without that extra water, it's safe to assume that the dehydrating properties of alcohol would have won out.
If you frequent muscle-building blogs, you might have seen a study last year out of the University of North Texas that showed higher levels of testosterone in the blood of subjects who downed grain alcohol after resistance training.
That's good, right? Probably not. As this thorough rundown of the study suggests, those high levels may be due not to higher testosterone production but, rather, to an alcohol-induced breakdown of androgen receptors in the muscle fiber. The testosterone that would normally go toward building new muscle stays in the blood, leading to higher readings.
So if you're serious about squeezing every gain you can from your workouts, avoid the booze. And the next time you read a story sensationalizing the performance benefits of alcohol, ask yourself if the goal of the article is to find a training edge, or simply to justify another round at the bar.
"Honestly, this isn't something clients ask me about very often," says Ryan. "Serious endurance athletes don't want to have a lot of alcohol. You want to rehydrate with electrolytes and recover with carbs and, depending on the workout, some protein."
That said, Lean Machine, a beer stripped of most of its alcohol and fortified with the stuff you'd find in a sports drink, is most likely a good recovery option. In theory, it should contain the beneficial substances of regular beer along with extra protein and electrolytes.
And it would probably taste a hell of a lot better with your recovery burrito than a bottle of Muscle Milk.