Ask Stew: Alcohol and Advanced Physical Training

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The effects of alcohol on fitness training
Drinking too much alcohol can affect your training as you prepare to join the military. (Photo by Russell Toof/Regional Health Command Europe)

It is not uncommon for young men and women in the military to drink alcohol when they have free time. You might compare the ages of many college students to the same ages of many younger members of the military, as both are in the age groups of 18-24. Binge drinking is not uncommon in either population, but what is it doing to the body of those who “work hard and play hard?” Here is an email from a young man who just finished college and is training hard to join the military on a special ops level that addresses the issues of drinking and striving for optimal performance.

Stew, I am a recent college grad and spent most of my time outside of classroom activities working out and partying. I am 23 years old and looking to enlist and go special ops and was wondering how much this lifestyle of spec ops prep and still going out a few nights a week and drinking is possible. To be honest, some nights I drink too much and have a hangover in the morning. I still train anyway, regardless of the pain. Any recommendations or information you can share as to making progress like this?  Steve

Steve -- since you are being honest, I remember those days as well. I played rugby in college and those after-game parties were intense. However, top it off with prep for spec ops training, school or work, and you will soon see a plateau or downgrade of your performance if you do this for a longer period of time. Soon it will be time to get serious. 

Focus on your training and take your recovery more seriously if you want to see the type of optimal scores and physical durability that are required. Take your previous methods of working hard and playing hard but still training hard when not feeling 100% as a way to give yourself a gut check -- maybe even call it mental toughness training. But it is time to stop and actually start treating yourself like an athlete: eat better, sleep better, hydrate better, train smarter.

Here is what is happening to you physiologically when you drink alcohol to excess, get drunk, go to sleep, wake up and try to train with a hangover:

After a tough few days in a row of hard training (Monday-Friday), then a Friday night bingeing session, your body is shot. Not only do you need a recovery day from training hard, but the night’s sleep you just had on Friday did not help you at all with recovery. When you are drunk, you do not fall into REM sleep and you wake up dehydrated. You probably feel like you have the flu (nauseated, headaches, sensitive to light, blurry vision, tired, thirsty, etc.) which you basically can blame on being dehydrated from a combination of alcohol (diuretic) and not thoroughly hydrating after the previous day’s workouts.

REM sleep is the only time your body actually is helping you recover from previous tough workouts. You need REM sleep to see optimal performance goals in your future. Sleep is your best method of recovery. After a night out Friday, your Saturday workouts will be affected. It is still recommended to get something done, but you need to hydrate and stay hydrated during the workout; you are very susceptible to heat exhaustion or heatstroke if you are doing prolonged, intense training. You at least will feel a little better after training, but you should spend the rest of your day (not drinking) resting, eating, and hydrating.

To fully answer the question, alcohol has a negative impact on aerobic performance (run, swim, ruck -- especially long efforts) as well as muscle recovery from resistance training (high-rep PT, weights, load bearing, etc.). Scientifically speaking, alcohol can inhibit muscle protein synthesis as well as create hormonal imbalances critical to your recovery, growth and optimal performance on fitness tests and challenging spec ops events.

I remember being young and having this kind of energy to stay out late at night and wake up early in the morning and work out; however, there came a time to start taking it seriously. The special ops community is not looking for choir boys, but about a year out from you needing to be at your A-game, you need to focus on advanced-level training that gets you to and through the training. To do this will require more recovery time, good sleep (importance of sleep), good nutrition before, during and after workouts, smart hydration/electrolytes and working thoroughly on your weaknesses with smart training for the future requirements of your selection program. Be smart; train smarter.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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