Performance Plate

Can Dry January Make You a Better Athlete?

Give your liver a break and you may gain a performance advantage, too

Can Dry January Make You a Better Athlete?

As an ergogenic aid, alcohol is probably not doing you too many favors. Photo: Matthew Spaulding/Stocksy

Between the spiked eggnog, New Year’s Eve champagne, and the whiskey you self-medicated with during family gatherings, these last few months have likely been an assault on your liver. Which is why, on many New Year’s resolution lists, there's a “Stay sober in January" entry. 

Dry January, as it’s called, is a phenomenon that popped up in the UK in the 1990s. “It was started by a student, of all people,” says Herald Jonas, an addiction specialist and founder of Sober.com. Over the years, the movement has gained steam across the pond, with as many as 17,000 Brits giving up alcohol for the month in 2014. 

Recently, Americans appear to have become increasingly intrigued by the trend, with Google searches spiking over the last few years. There’s evidence that a sober month is generally good for you: a 2016 University of Sussex study found that it can contribute to less binge drinking during the rest of the year, and another study from the University College London Medical School found that it reduces liver fat and possibly even cholesterol. We wondered if it could help you gain a competitive edge, too.

The answer, according to Matthew Barnes, a senior lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand: it’s complicated. In 2014, Barnes published a review of existing studies that looked at the impact of alcohol on sports performance, and generally found the results to be inconclusive. He's conducted his own studies on the matter, too, and reached similarly confounding results. For example, one study he published in October 2016 found that heavy drinking affected maximum power output the next day, but not aerobic capacity. Another, which he published in 2014 in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, found that moderate drinking post-workout didn’t impact recovery.

“The impact alcohol has on recovery and sports performance is complicated and depends on many factors, including the timing of alcohol consumption post-exercise, recovery time required before recommencing training/competition, injury status and dose of alcohol being consumed,” Barnes wrote in his aforementioned reviewFurthermore, little research has been done on abstaining from alcohol while training over an extended period of time.

That said, alcohol is poison. So, as an ergogenic aid, it’s probably not doing you too many favors. “Eliminating alcohol could have quite a large benefit on health, both physical and psychological,” Barnes says. “Your immune and endocrine systems would certainly benefit from reducing or eliminating large amounts of alcohol.” 

Breaking down alcohol results in toxins being released into the bloodstream. One of those toxins is acetaldehyde, which can damage genetic material in your cells. It’s thought that these genetic changes weaken cells’ ability to repair themselves. “Also, large amounts of alcohol consumed after resistance exercise can alter protein synthesis and endocrine function, which in turn may limit not only recovery but also our ability to gain lean muscle mass,” says Barnes. It can also disrupt normal hormonal responses to exercise, which in turn messes with muscle adaptation and recovery. It also tinkers with your metabolic processes, “which may lead to accumulation of fat mass,” says Barnes.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking: But what about all those studies that show that beer is a good recovery food? We hear you. Barnes—who was a university rugby player and knows a thing or two about the joys of drinking—says that while beer may work as a post-exercise hydration beverage due to its carb content, electrolytes, and inflammation-fighting polyphenols, “there are other options that provide a better electrolyte profile,” and you can easily get polyphenols and carbs elsewhere. Also, the study many cite as showing that beer helped marathoners recover? It used non-alcoholic brew.   

Even if we don’t have clear research showing causation between teetotaling and setting that new PR, it’s not hard to extrapolate a few other benefits that might come from the month-long experiment. “You’ll probably lose weight,” says Indra Cidambi, the founder and medical director of the New Jeresey-based Center for Network Therapy. You’ll also save money, and, as researchers from Brown University found in 2013, you may even sleep better; while alcohol is a sedative, and could help you fall asleep faster, people tend to wake up with much greater frequency during the second half of the night after an evening of cocktails, resulting in lower quality rest. 

So, where does this leave us? It's safe to say that giving up booze for a month is not going to make you a superathlete. But if you're already thinking about it (and if you're reading this article, you probably are), there are plenty of reasons to just go ahead and cork it for a month. If nothing else, it's going make that first beer on February 1 all that much better.

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