Because Everyone Asks – Does Beer Make You Slow?

Good God, yes, drinking makes you slow. Are you kidding me? Booze is literally poison! 

The moment your body recognizes that you’ve swallowed a river of fermented heaven, two things happen: 

  1. It stops everything it’s doing and attempts to flush the nonsense out of you as fast as possible.
  2. It releases a tsunami of dopamine, so you feel freaking awesome.

I wear a cowboy hat, so I’m going to be a straight-shooter on this: If you want to be as fast as possible on the bike…

don't drink

"But..."
"But..."
"But..."

The answer is still no. All ‘buts’ overcomplicate the issue. Cyclists spend thousands of dollars to save on grams, eat strange food, put themselves through grueling workouts, and then want to pretend that regularly dosing themself with poison won’t affect their performance?

Some like to back up this claim by citing scientific studies, but boredom is a sin, so I’ll stick to metaphors with a quiz.

Who wins this race? The athlete who always takes two steps forward, or someone who takes two steps forward and one step back?

Exactly - the athlete taking two steps forward wins, not the athlete regularly going backward.

Most progression isn’t a leap but a step. You would think the magnitude of progression over time is equal to the sum of those steps, but, crucially, total progression is the sum of compounding steps over time.

"Huh?"

OK. Fitness improves when you apply specific stress to your body (a cycling workout) that produces internal strain. Your body adapts to the strain slightly, making you incrementally more fit. Repeat ad infinitum and the fitter you’ll be from baseline.

Here’s the thing, though – Your body’s response to strain is individual and depends on many factors, including genetics, sleep, nutrition, training background, and, also, whether you’re regularly poisoning yourself.

Why is it essential to cut out the booze if you want to be fast?

Let’s say you drink three times per week. The amount matters, but hypothetically let’s say it’s moderate – 2-3 drinks. You’re also training, of course, producing significant physical stress.

So at least three days a week, you’re adding booze stress to physical training stress, which adds up to a lot of strain. When your body checks in on the workload for the week, it sees booze first, and says to itself:

"Holy buckets, someone is poisoned us!"

Your Body

Your body works on the alcohol first. After your body finishes metabolizing all the alcohol, it spends whatever remains of the night trying to catch up on the physical strain produced by training.

Here’s the rub – your body doesn’t quite get the job done on the training stress side.

Remember, it has priorities, and its first mandate is to keep you alive, not make sure you can pedal a bike faster, so you can’t blame it.

So when you wake up, you’re sober and partially adapted to training stress.

The word partially seems innocent here, but it’s not because if, as a rule, you’re always partially adapted to your training stress, what happens?

You’re less fit. However, you’re not just less fit than you would be if you didn’t habitually drink; you’re WAY less fit than you would be, thanks to something called compounding. If you’re holding a beer right now and want to yell something, say:

"KINDLY TAKE YOUR COMPOUNDING AND POUND SAND, WORTHLESS CONSEQUENCE OF MY OWN CHOICES!"

You, to yourself

Compounding effects are something most people glaze over in their financial literacy class, but this phenomenon isn’t limited to your 401k – it rules the world. Compounding is an emergent property of habits—anything you do habitually, for better or worse, compounds.

The habit of drinking compounds. Every time you drink, your body adapts less, so when you train again, you won’t be able to perform at the same level as if you didn’t drink.

One night of drinking sets you back acutely. But if you chronically drink You’re always training with compromised adaptation. If you’re chronically doing something that compromises your training adaptation, even by 1% (the effect is likely more), it’s not a small problem…

What’s so surprising about the effect of compounding? The longer the time frame, the more pronounced the effect. If you think compromised adaptation over a day is terrible, try a month, three months, or an entire race season. The difference in performance is staggering.

And yet, athletes drink. Why would an athlete drink if it has such an apparent adverse effect on performance?

I just bashed drinking a lot, but before you pour out all your beer and cancel all your happy hours, it’s time to counter my initial argument with another concept –

Periodized Enthusiasm

Periodization is a fancy exercise physiology concept that is a catchall term for varying the way an athlete trains over a year, month, or week to produce peak performance on race day. Most people talk about periodization exclusively about training, but it applies to drinking as well.

"The best athletes periodize their enthusiasm. The best performers aren't always 'on.' They're not always counting their calories, going to bed at 7 pm, riding 25 hours a week, avoiding social activities, or skipping a beer."

Some Guy

High performers know that high performance is inverse to happiness. As I discussed in a previous article, the cost of being as fast as possible always comes at the expense of life happiness – always. That sounds bleak, but the rub is that you don’t always have to be a monk to be fast.

For example, if your first race isn’t until April, the last thing you should do is adopt a drill sergeant’s habits in October. You’re not racing for seven months. The last thing you should do is impose unsustainable self-discipline with the certainty that that sacrifice will make the difference seven months out.

Superficially, this sounds counter-intuitive. If you can maintain monk mode for seven months while your competitors can’t, wouldn’t the compounding effects lead to an overwhelming advantage?

No.

For almost everyone, no. Unrelenting sacrifice also has a negative compounding effect on your life happiness. If you grind for seven months and don’t allow yourself to cut loose a little, you murder your enthusiasm, and your enthusiasm matters.

Your fitness is not the only determinate of performance – your willingness to dig deep is. When the race gets hard, and the last person in the lead group is 10 feet in front of you, you need to be able to eat pain and close that gap. You have to be able to push yourself.

You won’t be able to push if you’ve been at war with your happiness for seven months. You’ll let the wheel go because you’ll think your discipline owes you something as if you automatically should have fitness that easily allows you to pull away from everyone.

It won’t – racing is hard, no matter how fit you are, and you need the emotional bandwidth to make it count in the moments that matter, which means, perversely, that you shouldn’t cancel happy hour when your next race is months away.

So when should you stop drinking?

Are you within two months of racing season and want to be as fast as possible? Cut out drinking entirely, or severely limit consumption.

Do you not care if you’re not as fast as you could be because you like beer as much as going hard? Cool! I’ll get the next round.

The take home message here is to be clear on what you want and act accordingly. If you want to get on the podium, your recycling bin shouldn’t be filled with empty bottles. If you just like racing hard and don’t care that much about your results, then crack one.

Speaking of which, all this talk about drinking makes me parched. Until next time!

Exculpatory Footnotes

  • If you’re under 21, this article doesn’t apply to you because it’s illegal for you to drink. 
  • I also realize that you can drink alcohol without having fun. I mean, you can have fun without drinking alcohol. 
  • Here’s a big duh worth remembering – a light pilsner isn’t going to ruin tomorrow as much as an IPA or liquor. 
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