Implications for recovery
One of the key areas to think about when it comes to exercise recovery is muscle damage and associated inflammation. This may be from training or competition – either way it’s important to consider.
As mentioned earlier, one of the main markers which have been investigated in the literature is creatine kinase (CK). At present, acute ingestion appears to have very little impact on exercise-mediated muscular damage. CK is highly variable between individuals and may not be the best marker to assess in this situation – better markers to measure are the circulating levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Following exercise stress, muscle damage and subsequent inflammation, cytokines are released into the circulation in an attempt to start the muscle recovery process. The inflammatory processes appear to be influenced by both chronic and acute alcohol use – not good news if you are an athlete (or know of athletes) who consumes alcohol frequently. Essentially, routine consumption will promote high circulating levels of pro-inflammatory variables.
Practically, I think there’s a fine line between allowing an athlete to celebrate a good win, and going overboard so much that it then disrupts their recovery from exercise. When I used to work in rugby, it was a simple rule of a bottle of beer in the changing room post-match to celebrate a win.
I really like the way Luke Vella and David Cameron-Smith summarise their thoughts on alcohol, athletic performance and recovery in their 2010 paper. Essentially, they say how both the effects of alcohol on human physiology and the parameters that determine athletic performance are multifactorial and extremely complicated. The literature shows there are many adverse symptoms caused by acute alcohol ingestion. However, the notion that alcohol consumption affects performance has not received enough consistent validation to advance beyond being anecdotal.
Nevertheless, just because the negative influences of alcohol on performance are not well understood, it does not mean that its use prior to, or following, competition is recommended! Something that is pretty interesting to know is the current data demonstrates a severe lack of analysis on the possible detrimental action of alcohol in the recovering athlete. So basically, although as practitioners we know that we shouldn’t really be advising athletes to consume alcohol, we actually don’t know the full effects of it on recovery.
One thing we can be sure of is the available evidence in both cellular and rodent-models. Based on this literature, we can be confident that athletes should remain wary of ingesting alcohol following intense exercise, focusing instead on effective dietary strategies proven to enhance recovery.