How Cutting Out Booze Boosted My Fitness
After a year of being sober, I’m stronger and fitter than I ever was before.
Over a year ago, I put the bottle to bed. Booze and I never had a love/hate relationship and I was never addicted in a clinical sense, but I feel like Superwoman now and I don’t miss it one bit.
I didn’t drink in high school and as a D1 collegiate athlete at Syracuse University, with 5 a.m. practice six days a week, I kept my indulgence to a minimum. I was in my mid-20s, living in Spain (where most meals involve wine or beer), when I really began drinking. A few years later, after moving to a mountain town in Colorado where people play hard and party harder, drinking became a habit.
Go for a hike and a beer? Sure. Meet you at the bar for après-ski? Yup. Dinner party? I’ll bring the wine.
My drinking patterns ranged from “wild and fun” to semi-destructive. Worsening hangovers, weight gain, workouts pushed to the backburner and toxic relationships could all be traced back to booze. Then I tore my right pectineus hip flexor doing hill intervals while training for the Continental Divide 30km shortly after my 30th birthday, and I knew I had to start taking my body—and workout recovery—seriously if I wanted to keep competing as I got older.
In lieu of surgery, I poured myself into physical therapy and any healing modalities that might help—from infrared saunas to cryotherapy to sports massage. I quit drinking alcohol and caffeine. I pivoted to an 80 percent plant-based diet, prioritized sleep and lost 20 pounds without even trying. Who would have thought my personal quest to heal my hip and get running again would become a gateway to a sober-curious lifestyle?
A New Perspective
It wasn’t until I quit drinking that I became aware of just how much society revolves around consuming alcohol. Apparently, I’m not the only one to have this revelation. According to a Nielsen study published around the time I quit, nearly 50 percent of all U.S. adults are making an effort to limit their alcohol consumption. In the millennial generation, that number jumps to 66 percent. And subtle though it feels, a sober-curious undercurrent is growing in American culture. There are mainstream movements for non-drinking “holidays” now, like Sober October and Dry January. And a market analysis says non-alcoholic options for beer will triple by 2023, while demand for regular beer has flat-lined.
Living a sober-curious lifestyle means different things to different people, from those who stop drinking entirely to special occasion drinkers and people interested in a more “mindful” drinking experience. While everyone has their own reason for exploring this route, from a fitness perspective, I’ve concluded there is little to gain from indulging and much to lose.
The Booze-Fitness Connection
When you ingest alcohol, your GI tract absorbs it, and the liver, primarily, metabolizes it, producing toxic byproducts called acetaldehyde and acetate. Acetaldehyde is a known carcinogen and has the potential to cause significant damage to the liver, pancreas, brain and GI tract.
“Both acute and chronic uses of alcohol can affect health and athletic performance,” says Corinna Coffin, R.D., a nutrition coach for athletes in Salt Lake City, UT. Genetics, gender, amount of alcohol ingested, body mass and nutrition status all play into the short- and long-term effects. “Acute alcohol consumption can influence motor skills, hydration status, aerobic performance and certain aspects of the recovery process,” she says. “Chronic alcohol use can have more serious repercussions such as nutritional deficiencies and depressed immune function, resulting in increased risk of injury and prolonged healing.” Alcohol can also cause changes in body composition and repress muscular adaptations to training stimuli, she adds.
Even one beer can set you back, both physiologically and mentally. “Since alcohol is a depressant, it slows the central nervous system, which impairs your balance, reaction, memory, accuracy and motor skills,” says Jim White, R.D., an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist in Norfolk, VA. “Beyond impacting you while inebriated, lasting effects can follow into the next day, which may feel like a numbing of your mental capacity and sharpness during a workout.”
Not everyone feels the effects of alcohol the same way, but I’d had enough subpar trail runs and half-assed morning-after workouts to know that booze wasn’t making me any faster or fitter. It took a while to make the change, but over the course of several weeks, it got easier. Talking with peers, I realized my experience was hardly unique.
“At first, I thought it would be hard, socially,” says Scott Yorko, 34, a Boulder-based freelance journalist who cut out alcohol five years ago. “But I became practiced in what it was like to go out to a bar and not drink beer, and found it was surprisingly easy. It just stuck.” Yorko, who also works in the fitness industry, says there’s an additional perk to skipping the post-workout beer: “You get your soda water with lime that looks like a drink, but really, you’re hydrating all night at the bar so you’re ready to send it hard on the trail the next morning—hangover-free.”
A Growing Trend
Dozens of celebrities choose not to drink, along with wellness influencers who are normalizing the conversation around opting for a sober lifestyle. For me, cutting out alcohol has only improved my life and fitness goals. Within seven months and without surgery, I was back to hacking the trails. My gut inflammation drastically decreased, I slept more deeply and my mind-body relationship improved. Drinking buddies fell away; running buddies returned. My hip healed and this past summer, I bagged a solo 70-mile backpacking trip as well as a 75-mile canoe paddle-portage (while carrying a 70-pound food pack). And though many races are pandemic-postponed, I’m in the best total-body shape of my life.
No, I didn’t struggle with alcohol dependence or have a rock-bottom moment. But getting injured gave me a good reason to quit pumping booze into my system—and for that I am grateful. And as a fitness journalist who has interviewed enough nutrition experts on how alcohol physiologically and mentally messes with you, I knew I couldn’t lose by cutting it out. So I did, prioritizing a healthier lifestyle—and I haven’t looked back.
If you feel you have substance abuse issues, seek help from a medical professional.