The Bally Total Fitness Executive Club was situated perilously close to a restaurant and bar named Hogan’s. In the time I spent as an employee at the Bally Club, I can’t count the number of times that I was invited to post-workout meals by clients, fellow trainers or well-meaning club members, and I’d venture to guess that the majority of those Saturday afternoon and early evening meals involved the consumption of some variety of alcohol.
I can’t fault anyone involved for succumbing to that particular temptation; the culmination of a strenuous workout always feels like an achievement worthy of celebrating. Understandably, the feeling of relaxation experienced in that moment seems like it would be suitably amplified by partaking in just the right flavor of alcoholic spirit.
Well, before you accelerate your own descent into a decompressed state by pouring figurative gas on the fire — or literal ethanol down your esophagus — shouldn’t you be giving some sort of thought to whether or not you’re hastening along some unforeseen health problem in the process?
What does my body actually require after a workout?
If you’re on the back end of a freshly completed workout, your body generally requires three things, first and foremost of which is water. Even if all of the movement in your exercise regimen consists of lifting weights or otherwise engaging in resistance training, your efforts will still leave your body in search of some post-workout fluids.
The second thing your body will be yearning for is protein to help your muscles recover from the havoc your workout has wrought upon them. Although it’s less strenuous to your muscles in a direct sense, even intense cardio will leave your muscles in need of repair; their fibers will have experienced substantial microtearing, which requires an influx of protein in order for your body to effectively engage in the rebuilding process.
Finally, your body needs to restore the supply of glycogen that helped fuel your workout. To that end, carbohydrate intake is the swiftest way to aid your body in its quest to replenish whatever glycogen has been lost.
So what can drinking alcohol do to help my body recover from its workout?
The smart money says, “Not much.” But for the sake of both humoring you and being thorough, I’m willing to elaborate on that point a bit more.
Let’s say that you’re hypothetically me in this scenario, which means that you’re also hypothetically reaching for a Scotch ale straight from the great state of Michigan as your post-workout beverage. This means your body has 26 grams of carbohydrates coming its way. While this may not in any way be an ideal source for carbohydrate replenishment, it’s still better than nothing, and certainly worth acknowledging if you’re specifically selecting between alcoholic beverages.
Speaking of those options, if you went the route of indulging in what you might theoretically suppose to be among the highest protein drinks — a White Russian — you’re looking at close to 600 calories for an eight-ounce serving, which is a steep price to pay for adding only three grams of protein to your system. Unfortunately, that’s heavy cream being poured on top, not milk.
For the folks who prefer to drink their spirits straight up, please be advised that you’re sipping on nothing but ethanol, water and whatever flavorings the distiller added into the mix. There is absolutely nothing in that mixture of any nutritional value that can be utilized to your body’s benefit, except for the calories from the alcohol that your body is going to recognize as poison.
In fact, exactly because your body interprets that shot of Jack Daniels as an unwelcome intruder, it will prioritize the breakdown of the ethanol into acetate, thereby increasing the likelihood that the calories from authentic nutrient sources will lose their opportunity to be burned off before they’re converted into body fat. Not to mention that drinking unadulterated, undiluted spirits will accelerate the rate at which your body becomes dehydrated.
Okay, but how long should I wait before I start drinking after my workout has concluded?
Here’s the other thing: Alcohol also compromises protein digestion and absorption, and most people can only digest protein at a rate of eight to 10 grams per hour. If we’re assuming that your body needs 20 grams of protein in order to complete an optimal, rapid post-workout muscle recovery, this means that you should be waiting at least two hours after your workout before you start pounding shots.
While I’m on the topic, if you follow this rule of thumb, you can also capitalize on such a window of opportunity to fully rehydrate your body and have some carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen before J-Kwon kicks off your Friday night binge-drinking playlist.
Two hours. Got it. Is there anything else I should know?
How about this: If you’re dead serious about maximizing the benefits of your physical training, that will prove to be a rather imposing obstacle for a daily drinker. In addition to slowing the rate of protein absorption, dehydrating the body and increasing the likelihood that calories will go unburned and be retained as body fat, the presence of alcohol is likely to slow down your metabolism, inflame your muscles, decelerate your fat burning and impair your muscle growth.
And so, allow me to put it in the booziest terms possible: You’re never gonna want to drink to that.