We’re a Year into COVID. We Still Drink Too Much.
Athletes and outdoorspeople haven’t been immune to the uptick in boozing. If your drinking feels like a problem, here’s how you can cut back.
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Last year, in early March, Kristjana Anderson (who requested we use a pseudonym) had a lot to look forward to. The 46-year-old Annapolis, Maryland–based runner had recently finished treatment for melanoma, and an elite local running team had offered her a place on its roster. The team would pay all her 2020 race entry fees. “It was my suburban mom dream come true,” she says.
Of course, we all know what happened next: A global pandemic. A financial meltdown. And lots of canceled races.
That’s what happened on a macro level, at least. On a micro level, Anderson poured herself a glass of wine in her living room. Then she poured another. The 5:30 A.M. group run was canceled. Hell, everything was canceled. Why not finish the bottle?
Americans have been drinking more in lockdown. The week after most states issued stay-at-home orders last March, online alcohol sales jumped 262 percent from the same week in 2019. A 2020 paper published on JAMA’s Open Network surveyed 1,540 Americans about their alcohol consumption pre- and post-outbreak. It found the frequency of alcohol consumption had increased, especially for women, who reported a significant increase in heavy drinking.
Endurance athletes, for all their healthy tendencies, haven’t been immune. While we don’t yet have research showing whether weekend warriors struggled more than the general public in lockdown, a June 2020 study done in Sweden found that 16 percent of elite athletes reported increased drinking during COVID.
We also know that alcohol culture is pervasive in endurance and outdoor sports, even though alcohol is the antithesis of health food. No matter how much marketers push polyphenols in red wine and bros peddle carbs in beer as recovery fuel, alcohol is bad for you. For one thing, it’s a carcinogen: one 2019 study equated the increase in cancer risk of drinking a bottle of wine per week to that of smoking five cigarettes per week for men and 10 cigarettes per week for women. Alcohol messes with our sleep, dehydrates us, and in large doses may impair muscle recovery. It’s not good for our mental health, either. Heavy alcohol use and depression have been linked. Heavy drinking can also strain relationships, finances, and, of course, derail our training—all things that may exacerbate feelings of depression.
And yet “it’s very much a part of how you celebrate a race, or how you finish a run, like you do with brunch and mimosas,” says Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of the running brand Oiselle. And even when races are canceled, that post-run drink remains a habit, she says. Bergesen stopped drinking in 2020 and now runs the company’s Sobirds running group for other sober women. Interest in the group has picked up in the past six months, she says.
If you’ve also been boozing harder since the pandemic started, and have been thinking of cutting back, there are numerous proven strategies that can help.
The first step is to figure out the extent of the problem. Anderson had a reckoning with her own alcohol use when, one morning, she tried to run through a terrible hangover. She swore off booze that day but says she experienced withdrawal symptoms for three or four days afterward. While most moderate drinkers can handle withdrawal symptoms on their own, if you are truly alcohol-dependent, quitting cold turkey may not actually be safe. You should talk to a doctor first if you’re drinking heavily every day, drinking throughout the day (not just at night), and rearranging your life to work in alcohol.
For casual drinkers, though, the biggest part of cutting back is finding a strategy to conquer cravings, says Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and the chief clinical officer for Journey Pure Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers, which has locations in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida. To do that, you need to understand how cravings work.
Cravings are essentially habits, and “habits begin with a loop-based reward system,” Wind explains. Habits are formed when a trigger elicits a response, and then that response activates a reward in the brain. So the first step to breaking a habit is to evaluate the trigger. What, exactly, is making you want a drink? Is it that your job is stressful? You’re sick of being cooped up with your family? You’re anxious about the future?
Wind likes to let clients build on habits they already have. Say your habit is to plop down on your sofa post-run and watch Netflix with a few IPAs. In this case, you don’t need to cut out your Netflix binging. Keep that, because it’s comforting. Just stock your fridge with something else besides beer, like seltzer or kombucha. Changing too much all at once, like trying to start a reading habit and a no-booze habit to replace your Netflix and beers, sets you up for failure, he says.
Next, tackle whatever feelings of shame or guilt you’ve been harboring around your drinking. Addiction has a strong genetic component. Just as it’s not your fault that you have brown eyes or long limbs, you shouldn’t feel ashamed of the fact that staying away from alcohol is hard for you, explains Dr. Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California’s largest outpatient mental health organization. “Shame and guilt can also lead to isolative behavior and loneliness, and thus increase alcohol consumption,” Magavi says. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle.
Finally, know that your drinking may actually be masking other mental health issues. Magavi says she’s seen numerous patients who struggle endlessly with alcohol addiction until a mental health practitioner catches that there’s actually a concurrent anxiety or mood disorder. Once the patient has been successfully treated for that, addressing the alcohol addiction becomes easier. In a pandemic, when so many people are suffering with depression and anxiety, scheduling a few visits with a therapist as you work toward sobriety may be surprisingly useful.
Finally, embrace meditation. Yes, it’s practically a cliché these days, as meditation gets lobbed at us as the cure for everything from overeating to the pain of tough workouts. But Wind says there’s some evidence that it can really help those trying to cut alcohol out of their lives. The best way to use meditation, he says, is to practice it in direct response to a trigger. When you feel the craving coming on, set a timer and redirect your thinking to your breath for four minutes. Usually, that redirection is enough to help you think about what it is you really want. Rarely is it that drink.