It’s no secret that alcohol inhibits overall health, but for runners and other athletes, the risks are even worse. Drinking alcohol negatively affects your heart rate variability (or HRV) and heart rate, impairs sleep, can lower testosterone, impair balance and coordination, decrease muscle strength, and impact health bones, which increases the risk of sports-related injuries. Simply put: you shouldn’t plan on just “sweating” after drinking.
How long does it take for an athlete to recover from alcohol consumption?
Varying amounts or types of alcohol tend to affect people differently. But in general, the more we consume, the greater the psychological and physiological consequences. It takes at least an hour for the liver to remove each unit of alcohol from the body, and the liver may struggle to remove all the alcohol overnight.
Alcohol affects the body in many waysincluding excessive thirst due to the diuretic effect of alcohol, and diarrhea and indigestion as alcohol wreaks havoc on the digestive system and increases stomach acid production.
What about your heart?
Effect of alcohol on heart rate and HRV
Heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) are two useful measures that athletes should monitor in order to get a baseline of nervous system activity and assess how well the body is able to adapt to different situations. Consuming alcohol is show drop the HRV, and resting heart rate to increase. A normal resting heart rate for adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, and researchers in a study found that drinking a single standard drink increased participants’ heart rates by five beats per minute. Another one analysis by fitness tracking company WHOOP reported that respondents’ HRV dropped by an average of 7 milliseconds and their resting heart rate increased by an average of three beats per minute after a drink.
“Higher alcohol consumption is associated with more pronounced increases in heart rate,” said a UK-based exercise physiologist. Tom Cowan. “This can be amplified if the alcohol is accompanied by a mixer, which contains caffeine like an energy drink or in a cocktail like an Espresso Martini, because caffeine also increases heart rate.”
Why is HRV and heart rate monitoring important?
Resting heart rate has long been a reliable tool for athletes, but HRV has become increasingly popular as a recovery and training measure, both in general fitness trackers and for athletes. An HRV device measures the interval between each of your heartbeats, in milliseconds (m/s), over a specific period of time. More variability between beats gives you a higher score and generally means you’re in better shape and more recovered and ready to go. HRV tends to drop when a person is tired, stressed, sick, hasn’t recovered from training the day before, or after a night of drinking.
“Higher HRV generally equates to better fitness,” said Harry Glorikian, healthcare expert and author of The Future You: How Artificial Intelligence Can Help You Be Healthier, Stress Less, and Live Longer. But it’s important for each person to establish an individual baseline before analyzing changes in their HRV, he noted, because it’s a highly individualized measure. What is normal for you may not be for someone else. “The first time I saw my HRV numbers, I started looking for ways to compare them to others. What I quickly found was that my HRV was specific to me and the changes I had made my affected life my HRV and these changes do not apply universally to others. His takeaways? Focus on implementing your own diet and exercise changes, and watch your HRV and energy levels increase.
Start by establishing a baseline HRV and resting heart rate every morning for at least one to two weeks, using your fitness tracker or app. Then you can note the differences.
It is also important to note that while, in general, a higher HRV is correlated with better fitness and recovery and a lower resting heart rate tends to mean that an individual is more recovered and rested, this is not always the case. There may be individual circumstances that go against this general rule and extremely fit athletes may have the opposite effect. For example, resting heart rate could be suppressed by extreme fatigue and overtraining.
“Once you start using this metric, keep in mind that training isn’t the only factor influencing this metric. Work stress, lack of sleep, stressful family life, a poor diet, etc. can have a negative effect on HRV,” he said.
Why alcohol can impact sleep and HRV
Poor sleep, as well as stress (physical or psychological), can reduce HRV. A restful night’s sleep helps the body restore itself, repair cells and tissues and get ready again for peak performance. So what happens after a few glasses of wine in the evening?
“Alcohol disrupts sleep cycles, and because it’s a diuretic, it can cause you to wake up frequently to go to the bathroom during the night,” Cowan said. “This causes a reduction in sleep quality, has negative effects on recovery and can lead to a decrease in heart rate variability. Alcohol is also often consumed at social gatherings and parties that extend into the night or into the early morning hours, which likely also affects sleep duration, leading to inadequate recovery.