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Drunk cycling: on the ale trail

Beer bottle holder
Rob Kemp
18 Sep 2015

Performance killer or post-ride recovery? Cyclist pours over the truth behind cycling and alcohol & finds the truth behind hangover cures.

Matt Brammeier has a weakness. ‘As with all cyclists, he likes a beer,’ explains Brian Smith, manager of team MTN-Qhubeka while commenting on Brammeier’s intermediate sprint win during the 2015 Tour of Flanders. Brammeier – rewarded with his weight (73kg) in Steene Molen beer (75cl bottles) – was in for a good night. There’s even research from Granada University that shows how beer after a session in the saddle is an ideal antidote – quenching thirst and replacing energy that water can’t. But exercise physiologists and the sports scientists advising the pro teams aren’t often asked the kinds of questions posed by many amateur riders most weekends such as – which beers are best for riders? Or – how do you crash-cure a hangover ahead of a 50-mile Sunday stretch? Allow us to illuminate…

Bradley Wiggins drinking champagne after winning the 2012 Tour de France

According to the aptly named John Brewer, Professor of Applied Sport Science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, drinking alcohol in the days prior to a big ride is hardly performance enhancing. ‘A session on the beer a night or so before a big event decreases skill and coordination, and makes it harder to focus on targets or goals,’ he says. ‘It‘s also a diuretic – this means it can cause dehydration, rather than rehydrate in the way that non-alcoholic drinks do,’ Brewer explains. ‘Since scientists know that even relatively small amounts of dehydration impact negatively on performance, so alcohol is not recommended for this reason.’

If you’ve ridden with a hangover and found yourself gasping for breath, that’s most likely the booze taking its toll.

Dehydration doesn’t just present itself in the form of a dry mouth and increased thirst. Every alcoholic drink you have reduces the liquid component of your blood (plasma volume). The knock-on effect of this means your heart is put under extra strain to provide the muscles with the volume of blood it’s used to – especially when those muscles are challenged to work harder by hills. If you’ve ridden with a hangover and found yourself gasping for breath or aware of a rapidly racing ticker midway uphill, that’s most likely the booze taking its toll. Most infamously, this combination – along with a ‘chaser’ of amphetamines – is believed to have been the cause of the tragic death of legendary Brit cyclist Tom Simpson while climbing Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour. 

Beers & breakdowns

During the body’s processing of alcohol – metabolising it to the point where it can be flushed out – it’s turned into acetaldehyde, a substance that’s toxic to brain cells and causes blood vessels in your brain to dilate.

Bike beer

‘This is one of the reasons for a post-binge headache,’ explains Nigel Mitchell, Head of Nutrition at Team Sky. ‘Alcohol also saps the body of its ability to maintain blood sugar levels, depleting organs – including the brain – of their main power source, slowing your thinking as well as your reaction times. There are no miracle cures for alcohol-induced dehydration and the effects of a booze binge can leave the body below par for several days.’

Don’t think that because you’ve got a full 24 hours between a Friday session on the sauce and a Sunday one in the saddle that you’ll be fully fit. Prevention really is the key. ‘The best way to reduce the impact is to drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids before, during and after a night in the pub,’ Mitchell adds. He suggests taking on water between bottles of beer (as opposed to pints, ideally) or to drink spirits (clear ones like gin or vodka) with substantial amounts of mixers. ‘Drink water when you get home, take a pint of water to bed with you and look to bolster those blood sugar levels at the end of session, too. Though perhaps not with a greasy fat-filled kebab. Then eat a high-fibre, high-carbohydrate breakfast to slowly raise your blood sugar levels the next morning.’

Fatter not fitter

The side effects of a night on the tiles won’t just leave you nursing a sore head with a tongue like a cat-owner’s carpet. It can also seriously hamper your body’s ability to burn fat, with punishing repercussions for weight management. (Those cyclists chasing the holy grail of body fat reduction and Lycra-friendly leanness may want to look away at this point.)

Adam Hansen takes beer from a fan

Within minutes of sipping a drink, your fat metabolism will go for a metaphorical nap. The body doesn’t recognise alcohol as a socialising stimulant and means of transforming one into a confident bar-room wit and move-busting dancer. No, both body and brain see beers, wines and spirits – or any other form of alcohol – as a potentially lethal toxin. As such, its removal from the system becomes the body’s number-one priority. Research from Laval University in Quebec highlights how this need to deal with alcohol causes the body to stop burning its usual stored carbohydrates and fat for energy. The focus switches to flushing out the alcohol – so the rest of the body’s natural calorie-burning processes are also compromised.

‘That’s dangerous for your waistline,’ warns Mitchell. The number of calories in alcohol is high, at around seven per gram (7kcal/g).’ Carbs are usually around 4kcal/g and only fat, with 9kcal/g, is more calorific. Even if the body burns a percentage of those calories when it’s busy metabolising the booze, it’s not the kind of fuel source it can burn through quickly. Instead, alcohol burdens the liver with a process that takes several hours.

Once you’re out on the bike, your body will convert any carbs for energy as they’re more rapidly processed – pushing alcohol down the list, which is bad for metabolism. The amount you drink, plus sugary mixers and salty snacks, will add to your fat intake and hamper your energy production. ‘Alcohol calories result in energy intake that’s in excess of energy expenditure,’ Mitchell explains. Even though cyclists come in a variety of sizes and guises – with genetics also influencing each body’s processing of booze – it takes around one hour for the average male to metabolize 18ml of alcohol (the amount in a 330ml bottle of beer at 5% ABV). US studies, published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, found that people who downed just two cocktails showed a remarkable 73% reduction in fat-burning after two hours.

Apnea hour

‘It also cripples a cyclist’s crucial sleep patterns,’ warns John Brewer. While a beer or wine late in the evening can give the impression of helping relax both body and mind in preparation of a good night’s rest, for cyclists gearing up for an early morning start, it could be a sleep-sabotaging move.

Cycling beer

Research in the Journal Of Clinical Psychopharmacology from the University of Zurich reveals how alcohol disrupts the second half of the sleep period. Study subjects were observed to suffer less fitful sleep, especially during the deeper, more recuperative period, along with waking from dreams and returning to rest with difficulty. This in turn led to daytime fatigue with inevitable repercussions for riding times, performances and even injury risk. An unsettled sleep cycle upsets the body’s ability to store glycogen, according to a new study into performance and alcohol by Professor David Cameron-Smith of the University of Auckland, with a range of detrimental effects including decreased mental sharpness.

Some quantities of alcohol in your system can raise the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This can have the drastic effect of reducing the levels of human growth hormone (HGH) in the blood by as much as 70%. HGH is vital for building and repairing muscle tissue as well as increasing muscle strength and promoting injury recovery. 

Ale is not lost

But immediately after a race or long ride, when there’s no immediate need to be clear-headed the next day, celebratory drinking sessions have been used as successful tools among many pro teams. Well-timed drinking sessions can help unite teams, bond riders and relieve the pressure to perform.

Peter Sagan drinks champagne

Australian research published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition And Exercise Metabolism, even found that ‘adapted ales’ – with the alcohol content lowered to 2.3% and with added electrolytes – could work as sports drinks. In tests on endurance athletes, this lower-alcohol mix hydrated the trial group better than traditional-style ale. Beer has also been shown to have some anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, according to German research. A range of positive physiological effects include its propensity to boost the immune system of those undergoing prolonged strenuous exercise – which in turn makes them less prone to upper respiratory tract infection.

However, the International Journal of Sports Nutrition And Exercise Metabolism study also confirmed that alcohol slows down muscle protein synthesis – key to exercise gains and muscle recovery – by nearly 40%. So, for Matt Brammeier and the rest of us, it may be wisest to make the first post-ride pint a protein shake, before hitting the bar. 

One for the road

beers

Bavaria Radler

(German for ‘cyclist’) Crisp, citrus-like and low-alcohol to the point of being shandy, purportedly invented in 1922 by an innkeeper swarmed by 13,000 thirsty cyclists. At around 2.5% ABV, it’s deemed a ‘safe’ mid-ride refresher. 

Moor Rider’s Revival 

Made by Bristol’s Moor Beer Co for London bicycle café Look Mum No Hands, this pale ale is brewed with Chinook hops and green tea. Fragrant, slightly bitter and just 3.8% abv, it’s a perfect post-ride refresher. 

San Miguel

A study by Professor Manuel Garzon, head of the medical faculty at Granada University, found that cyclists performing intense drills recovered better while drinking Spanish beer rather than plain water. Can we take part next time, prof?

Bitburger Drive Alcohol-Free

The beer of choice for the German national football team, it’s a fully matured Bavarian lager and best served well-chilled. It delivers some nice malt and biscuit notes on the palate and little bitterness.

Erdinger Alcohol-Free

According to globetrotting beer writer Tim Hampson, it’s the use of wheat that gives this classy beer its crisp refreshing flavour, while classic German Hallertau hops lend it a pleasantly earthy aroma.

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