Last weekend England rugby’s heavyweight No8 Billy Vunipola had the game of his life as his club Saracens won the Champions Cup. As he was handed his man of the match bubbly in front of the cameras, the 24-year-old toasted the victory and then promptly pre-apologised for the ensuing all-night boozing he was about to embark on.
Yet within a week Saracens are due another crunch fixture in the semi-final of the Aviva Premiership, which will inevitably role into the final at Twickenham and then a gruelling ten match tour of New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions.
Rugby players are renowned for their love of a pint or nine after a match but the modern day professional is the model of elite athleticism. So how can big Billy V afford to drink until he’s horizontal without severely compromising his performance? And – more pertinently – how much is your relationship with alcohol handicapping your fitness?
The route of all evil?
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” says performance nutritionist Liam Holmes of pH Nutrition, “but alcohol is practically the devil when it comes to fitness.”
That sound a bit strong? Well, according to Holmes, it has no nutritional value, it’s poisonous and as soon as it hits your stomach it starts wreaking havoc with your digestive system. Oh.
If you measure fitness by your ability to look great with your shirt off, dominate the five-a-side pitch or run a respectable 10K with barely a warm-up, alcohol is no good. “As soon as it passes your lips your body will prioritise breaking it down,” explains Holmes. “As a consequence fat metabolism is stalled and the by-product of alcohol, acetate, is toxic so your body will be in red alert recovery mode.”
You already know this isn’t great for your kidneys and liver, but alcohol can also have an irritating effect on the lining of your stomach, reducing the rate and efficiency at which you digest food, meaning more will be stored as fat.
It’ll scupper your ability to build or even retain muscle because it lowers testosterone, the anabolic hormone essential for strength, performance, recovery and overall energy levels.
And, if that’s not all, at around seven “empty” calories per gram, you’ll be pouring a tonne of useless calories down your throat with every pint of bitter (182 calories), small glass of wine (159 calories) or double scotch (122 calories). That order alone would require a 45 minute slog on the treadmill to shift the equivalent calories.
However, all this scaremongering is ignoring booze’s one saving grace: its ability to help you unwind.
As we saw with big Billy V, alcohol is associated with letting off steam, treating yourself, and relaxation. Every now and then, that’s vitally important to help keep you on track so you’re able to stay disciplined the rest of the time.
“99% percent of the season these guys are perfect athletes,” says Andy McTaggart, general manager at CrossFit Shapesmiths. “But once in awhile they need a chance to deload in the gym and the same is true with their nutrition and commitment to stay on the wagon.”
You don’t have to be a saint 99% of the time, but the important thing to avoid is letting a couple of beers after work or half a bottle of red with dinner become a regular habit.
And it’s also worth knowing how to limit the damage when you do slip up. “If I’ve had one too many I’ll drink a litre of water and pop a vitamin C tablet before bed to rehydrate and help my body flush away toxins,” says McTaggart, who admits he’s not teetotal but steers clear of booze ahead of big training sessions or a heavy working week.
Then the next day is no time to start wallowing in self pity and deep crust pizza. “Rather than feeling sorry for yourself, get up, make a nutritious homemade smoothie to replace lost nutrients and vitamins and get some fresh air to help kickstart the recovery process,” says McTaggart.
Remember, you earned those delicious ales last night. This splitting headache is simply your reminder to not let one day turn into seven.