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The Science of Drinking Post-Workout

Alcohol mixes well with many things. It is, after all, a solution. But one thing it doesn’t typically play well with is a tired, hungry, dehydrated body.

There has, however, been recent chatter about how every bro’s favorite celebratory beverage of choice — i.e., beer — might actually do a body good after a workout. As a beverage, beer is similar in chemical makeup to sports drinks like Gatorade: It’s made largely of water and contains carbs, minerals and B vitamins. In fact, if it weren’t for the alcohol, beer is re-hydrating. All it’s missing to be an electrolyte powerhouse is sodium.

There’s even a handful of beers infused with protein, like Barbell Brew, a beer produced by a vitamin supplement company that caters specifically to the post-gym drinking crowd by pumping 21 grams of protein into a wheat ale, and Mighty Squirrel, a Boston-based brewery that makes “sports beers” with four grams of protein per bottle. (I’ve never seen Barbell Brew anywhere, it must be ordered from the parent company, but I’ve served Mighty Squirrel’s IPA; while the added protein may be a marketing gimmick, it’s legitimately decent.)

Science does back up some of this. In a 2015 Journal of International Sports Medicine article, researchers determined that “the intake of a moderate amount of beer has no deleterious effects on markers of hydration or on indicators of physiological stress recuperation in young, healthy, physically active, male individuals.”

So that’s it, right?

Drinking after exercise is, like, no big deal?

Almost, but not quite.

“The lack of a negative effect doesn’t always mean there’s a positive effect,” says Heidi Skolnik, a sports nutritionist and consultant whose company, Nutrition Conditioning, oversees the Sports Nutrition program at Juilliard (even drama requires your body to be in optimal condition) and the School of American Ballet. “I see no proof that it’s good for you, but it might not hurt you.”

Skolnik, who has worked with professional athletes in the NHL, MLS and WNBA as well as with the Knicks, Mets and New York Giants, says it’s important to remember how long it takes a body to recover from a training session or game. “It takes [up to eight] hours to rehydrate — something many athletes don’t realize.”

That means drinking alcohol after a workout might not be bad for you, per se, but it can make you feel like shit. After all, most hangover symptoms — e.g., headache, nausea, brain fog and muscle aches — are due to dehydration. Not only do most people not drink enough water when they’re out the bar, alcohol also encourages the body to eliminate whatever water it has left. So if you’ve just sweat out a bunch of precious liquid at the gym, adding alcohol to your system is like pouring gasoline on a giant, moisture-sucking fire.

“If it’s a low alcohol content beer there’s relatively no difference in body water content,” Skolnik says. “But when what you’re drinking is four percent alcohol or above, it can begin to delay recovery.”

Essentially, having one drink after exercise may not be harmful to your body, but it must be one drink — and a very specific type of drink at that: A session beer, or any beer containing less than 5 percent alcohol.

A somewhat new trend in American drinking, session beers have long been a staple in the U.K., where pub culture focuses more on conversation than ripping back tequila shot after tequila shot with your coworkers. Beer is also taxed by its alcohol by volume in Britain, making beer with less alcohol more financially appealing. “Pub life in England is definitely at a slower pace,” says Harmony Dawn, American Brand Ambassador for Tenure England Vodka at Sazerac Company.

And session beer fits that pace perfectly. “The ABV of most session beers is between 3.5 to 4.5 percent,” Dawn explains. “This lets you spend far more time chatting up your friends at the pub. If you’re drinking 10 percent brews, you can’t enjoy a full afternoon sipping and chatting.”

As for any other booze after a workout — you’re entering VERY dangerous territory. In a study published a few years ago, for example, scientists fed groups of men six Screwdrivers over three hours after running through a high intensity workout, “representing the mean intake of alcohol that has been self-reported in several studies of binge drinking practices of team athletes.”

The results?

About what you’d expect: Alcohol really fucks up your body’s ability to synthesize and repair muscle fibers. In the experimental group drinking the vodka-laced orange juice, tests showed a 37-percent reduction in rates of muscle protein synthesis — bad news for anyone hoping to bulk up or increase muscle definition. “The window of time that the enzymes that help build muscle are most active is right after you finish a workout,” Skolkin says.

None of this, however, seems to put a damper on the idea of hitting the bar after the gym, or running a 5K with friends. In fact, drinking after a rigorous workout has become so commonplace that drinks from beer sponsors are included in the registration fee for many events like Tough Mudder. Sam Adams even has a special 26.2 lager to celebrate the Boston Marathon.

“It does seem to be that it’s not as negative as we once thought,” Skolnik says.

Which is great — unless you’re exercising to gain muscle or shed pounds. Because even a session beer has more than 100 calories, and let’s be honest: With 4 percent alcohol, you’re not gonna have just one.