Oscar Wilde was definitely onto something when he wrote that “alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, may produce all the effects of drunkenness.” Unfortunately, sufficient quantities of alcohol usually also lead to a hangover, as many will be all too aware of during this month of merrymaking. While hangovers are never fun, they’re a lot more bearable when your plans for the day don’t extend beyond lying on the couch and ordering pizza.
Another popular (and definitely more proactive) approach to dealing with the after-effects of a heavy night is to go for a run. This tactic can be controversial: for some, the prospect of pounding the pavement with an already-pounding cranium might sound like a sure way to make a bad situation worse. Others, however, make a point of “sweating it out,” as though a brisk ten-miler were the perfect antidote to the previous night’s poisons.
But does running hungover provide any legitimate benefits?
“From a physiologic standpoint, my guess is that running while hungover increases your blood flow and helps clear the toxins from your blood, and probably elevates you from feeling like total shit to feeling like a human,” says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a New York-based sports medicine physician and committed distance runner with numerous peer-reviewed articles about sports injuries and nutrition to his name.
Dr. Metzl, who this year ran his 35th marathon, qualified his statement by adding that he was not a big drinker himself, and so had little empirical wisdom to share on the sobering effects of a morning-after run. That aside, he stated that the principal concern for anyone running with a bad hangover is that you can easily become severely dehydrated, largely because you’re likely low on fluids to begin with. Hence, dehydration-related injuries—like muscle pulls and severe cramping—are greater risk factors if you exercise after an evening of self-abuse at the business end of an ice luge.
Seeking the perspective of a dedicated runner who might have more personal experience with drinking and its consequences than Dr. Metzl, I reached out to Lewis Kent. Kent, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario last spring, was a competitive collegiate runner. He still works out with the team and, in his own estimation, currently trains as hard, if not harder, than he did in college. He’s also the former world record-holder and former world champion in the beer mile, and therefore a useful source on matters of mixing alcohol and running.
“I’m definitely pro-running to get rid of a hangover,” Kent says. “The run won’t feel as great as it would if you weren’t hungover, but by the time you do it, sweat it out a little, get back home, get some food in you, and maybe take a little nap—you’re feeling good as gold by dinnertime.”
Kent also believes that the restorative effects of running when hungover extend beyond the physical.
“Psychologically, when it’s noon and you’ve already got your run in for the day, you start to feel more productive,” Kent says. “If you just sit on the couch until noon, you’re just, like, ‘what have I done with my entire morning?’”
The mental benefits of running may represent the most legitimate way in which exercise can “cure” your hangover, since the theory that sweating can help expel toxins remains largely contentious.
“You can’t speed up the removal of alcohol by sweating—that’s a huge misconception,” says Dr. Matthew Barnes, a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s Massey University and author of a 2014 Sports Medicine article entitled, “Alcohol: Impact on Sports Performance and Recovery in Male Athletes.” While Barnes concedes that a “very small amount” of alcohol can be excreted through sweat and breath, exercise is not a significant catalyst in the body’s natural metabolization of alcohol.
Barnes also pointed to another fallacy in the “pumping out the toxins” hangover cure. “With a hangover, by definition, there’s no alcohol in your system; all the alcohol has been metabolized, probably overnight. If there’s still alcohol in your system, you’re still under the influence of alcohol and it’s a different thing altogether,” Barnes says. He noted that those dreaded hangover symptoms are most likely due to severe dehydration, rather than poisons still lurking in the blood. For that reason, Barnes says that re-hydrating appropriately will probably be more conducive to improving one’s morning-after state than attempting to eliminate toxins via running.
Still, if you’re not too debilitated, there’s no reason why the normal benefits running might have on your psyche shouldn’t come into play after a night of heavy drinking.
“We know that there’s a positive chemical effect on the brain through exercise, whereas alcohol has a depressant effect,” Barnes says. “Exercise may well alter mood states and have a positive effect that may help overcome the negative effects of drinking—and that’s probably going to be psychological.”