Sure, you can run fast after drinking—just look at James "The Beast" Nielsen's sub-five-minute beer mile for proof. But you can run even faster if you lay off the booze before a race.
According to a recent paper in the Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine, running while drunk is no more taxing on the body than sitting while drunk. Not that that’s particularly big news—especially to long-distance runners with that buddy who can drink all night and run all day.
But really, even though it may not be the worst thing to do before going on a run (or while running), you really shouldn’t make a habit of it.
“Athletes, if they are actually athletes,” says Evelyn Parr at Australian Catholic University’s School of Exercise Science, “would have no reason to consume alcohol, and especially in volumes that were used by that study, prior to any sort of event.”
For one, alcohol’s a poison. Two, while it can increase aggression (a positive, depending on the sport) it can also adversely affect coordination, planning, and execution of movement. And three, it’s a powerful diuretic, so it depletes your water volume, much of which your body takes from your blood plasma. “As a result,” explains Professor Stuart Phillips of McMaster University’s Exercise Metabolism Research Group, “your heart beats faster and harder in order to maintain heart blood output.”
In the pilot study, doctors took 10 healthy individuals, plied them with three shots of whiskey, then put them on a treadmill and ran them to their maximum heart rate. Two days later, they ran the same 10 subjects to exhaustion—minus the good stuff. Conclusion: “Acute alcohol intake in healthy white men is associated with a non-significant exercise performance reduction and stress hormone stimulation, with an unchanged exercise metabolism.”
So how far ahead and how much drink is okay? “I would give as long as possible—if performance is the key,” says Dr. Matthew Barnes of New Zealand’s Massey University. Maybe two drinks for men and a drink for women at least two hours before the event—that’s a “good benchmark,” says Phillips. “More than that and you run the risk of dehydration and impaired judgment.”
Interestingly enough, the World Anti-Doping Agency has banned its use in only a few sports, like riflery and archery (small doses of alcohol being effective at steadying one’s nerves, giving the drinking athlete that special edge). Nevertheless, as much as studies like these show that alcohol—in moderation—doesn’t have the adverse effects athletes might think it would, “We have known for a long time now that alcohol is not ergogenic, rather it is ergolytic—it will decrease performance if anything,” says Dr. Barnes. “I struggle to see the relevance, as very few people are going to exercise while under the influence of alcohol.”