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Can you mix cycling with alcohol?

Michael Donlevy
4 Dec 2019

In theory you can, but the Christmas party season is a stark reminder that you shouldn’t

We all like a drink, and there are few better ways of celebrating Christmas, New Year or virtually any other occasion than by raising a glass or two. There is just one problem: as a nation, two is becoming a few too many and our drinking is out of control.

Government figures for 2017 revealed that more than 40% of Brits aged 16 to 24 and more than a third of people aged 25 to 44 binge-drink every week.

A tipple’s all very well, but we’re storing up a lot of trouble for later. Alcohol abuse costs the NHS £3.5 billion a year, according to The Centre For Social Justice, but it seems that we’re not going to see the long-term effects of alcohol until they hit us in the face. Even the facts are getting violent!

The science of booze

‘When you drink alcohol, about 20% is absorbed into the bloodstream,’ says sports nutritionist Anita Bean. ‘Most of the alcohol is broken down in the liver into a substance called acetyl CoA and then, ultimately, into ATP [adenosine triphosphate, or energy].

'While this is occurring, less glycogen and fat are used to produce ATP in other parts of the body.’ This is crucial when it comes to cycling, because glycogen and fat fuel our efforts.

‘You might not gain weight if it’s a one-off but you’ll struggle to lose it if that’s your goal,’ says coach Will Newton.

‘Unlike glucose, which goes from the bloodstream to the muscles, alcohol will be stored as fat before you can use it as fuel.’

Then, of course, there’s the hangover. ‘Too much alcohol causes headache, thirst, nausea, vomiting and heartburn,’ says Bean, as most of us well know. ‘These symptoms are due partly to dehydration and a swelling of the blood vessels in the head.’

‘Most of us have ridden a bike with a hangover,’ adds Newton. ‘I barely drink now but long ago I took part in the Chippenham & District Wheelers 1K time-trial on New Year’s Day, and the ride to Castle Combe was particularly unpleasant.’

Unit cost

Cycling after a night out is all a matter of judgement (that thing that alcohol compromises, of course). What you do depends on how much you’ve had, and how it’s made you feel.

‘Sometimes a bit of light exercise can help clear your head and may provide a psychological benefit in making you feel like you’re making amends for the night before,’ says coach Andy Blow.

‘Exercising hard or for a long time with a hangover isn’t a great idea, though. You’ll be predisposed to becoming dehydrated, especially in warm conditions, and may put additional stress on your heart so you should keep it short and light if you’re doing anything at all.

‘But sometimes you have to accept that not riding a bike is the compromise you have to settle for if you want the night out.’

‘You shouldn’t really ride while alcohol is still in your bloodstream,’ adds Newton. ‘For the average person’s metabolism it takes one hour per unit of alcohol for the body to remove it.’

‘All of the usual advice of making sure you’re not drinking on an empty stomach, taking in some electrolyte or sports drinks towards the end of the night and not mixing your alcoholic drinks can help,’ says Blow.

‘However all these things are doing is seeking to minimise the disruption to your homeostasis that consuming lots of alcohol can produce. Ultimately, just drinking more moderately is always the best idea.’

Or maybe – dare we say it – not at all.

Don’t drink and ride

Cycling is more dangerous than other forms of exercise. If you run under the influence you may end up heaving into a grass verge, whereas if you ride a bike while alcohol is in your system you may end up decorating the tarmac.

‘Your judgement is impaired, you lose your inhibitions and your reaction times are reduced,’ says Newton. ‘This is not a combination that’s conducive to safe cycling.

‘Plus alcohol can impair your judgement in other ways – you could have the most brilliant nutrition plan, but if you drink too much you get the munchies and any thoughts of healthy eating go out the window.

‘That’s fine if it’s a one-off, but many people do it two or three times a week, and over Christmas a 70kg rider can easily gain 5kg in a week.’

It’s not just your waistline that could be in trouble. ‘If you’ve drunk too much the night before you’re not legal to drive – but you’re also not legal to ride a bike,’ says Newton.

‘Technically the police could charge you with “cycling under the influence of drink or drugs”, and if you have a collision while there’s alcohol in your bloodstream you could be found at fault, even if you’ve been knocked off your bike.’

We’re not here to scare you and we’re not here to preach to you, either. You probably know what’s best for you and you know your body well enough to decide when to ride and when to rest.

But Newton agrees that, as a nation, we’re turning a blind and possibly bloodshot eye to the problem. ‘A word on Dry January: if you think it’s an achievement worth celebrating to do 30 days without a drink, you have a drink problem.

‘Many people don’t realise how much they’re drinking when they get home from work and say, “I need a glass of wine.” If you need a glass of wine, you have a drink problem. Drink for the taste – and if you go past that first pint of beer or glass of wine, you’re not drinking for the taste anymore.

‘Think in terms of a long-term lifestyle – this is how I’m going to live my life.’

And if you are about to crack open that second can of Stella, just make sure those beer goggles are safely put away when you look at your bike the morning after the night before…

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