The effects of alcohol on exercise and recovery

It’s not just a stinking hangover that will impair your performance in the gym - alcohol has several implications on a range of factors meaning it’s often best avoided in relation to exercise, as much as possible.


I’m no fan of a super restrictive lifestyle. I always say “everything in moderation” and believe that you can prioritise living a healthy life overall while still enjoying yourself. Alcohol will feature as part of that for many of us, but it’s important to moderate the intake in relation to the fitness goals you’re trying to achieve.



Calories and effect

Alcohol is effectively empty calories, with little nutritional value. Certain types of it contain lots of sugar, in particular cocktails and ciders. Clear spirits and a lot of beers are low in sugar, but still high in calories due to the alcohol itself. So if you’re restricting your intake of calories to lose fat, it’s good to be aware of what you’re consuming in terms of “alcoholic calories”. One pure gram of alcohol contains 7 calories.


Alcohol may also affect your willpower and cause you to make bad food decisions, further increasing your calorie intake. It hits your sleep quality potentially leaving you tired, and if you’re hungover and feeling rough from the previous night you might be more likely to move around less and thus burning less calories than you would on a normal day. 



Exercise recovery

When you consume alcohol, the liver takes charge in processing it, but getting the alcohol through your system takes priority over everything else. This means that protein synthesis following a heavy workout would be pushed further back in the queue of your body’s priorities if you consume alcohol. Meaning the rebuilding of your muscles and your body’s recovery might be affected negatively if you drink alcohol on the same day as a workout or the night before a training day.


Alcohol consumption may also hinder the production of testosterone, an important hormone in the process of toning up and building muscle.



Can I exercise on a hangover?

I’ve read a lot of contradictory information on this topic. I would argue that light and low-impact exercise such as a brisk walk, light cardio or lighter endurance training might make you feel better when hungover. However, your body’s still processing the alcohol that was consumed and any heavy training could interfere with this process and not yield the results you’re after. You’re better off leaving the heavy weights for another day!




Some wines contain a healthy dose of antioxidants, which means there might be positive benefits to consuming them. However, you can probably also get these nutritional benefits from antioxidants from vegetables, fruits and berries.


There are some claims that people who drink moderately live longer than those who don’t, but there might be other factors influencing why people don’t drink skewing these results.



To conclude...

All this doesn’t mean alcohol needs to be avoided completely! There are ways to enjoy alcohol moderately as part of a flexible diet, and should you end up having a heavy night there’s nothing to stop you from bouncing back from it eventually. Personally I rarely drink and that’s what my body’s used to, so even just one drink will be something I feel the next day. Since reducing my alcohol intake I have made increased progress at the gym, not feeling like I’m taking a step back after having a heavy weekend. But then again, I also believe you need to enjoy yourself. So setting yourself realistic goals in relation to your alcohol intake, and avoiding it before and after exercise, might be easier to achieve than going completely cold turkey.