National Beer Day: Recovery Beer Analysis

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The finish line has been crossed. The sweat is starting to dry. Your dry heaves have dropped to one every couple of minutes. Time to drink! But what? You see the row of paper cups half-filled with urine yellow sports drink and cringe. But look! There’s a crowd of people surrounding that tent in the distance. They smile. They laugh. Their hands are raised in celebration of their accomplishments, and their plastic calabashes of victory are filled with liquid gold! You wish to join them, to share in their joy. But should you? This blog will take a closer look at the recovery beer and what can be gained and lost under that tent.

Many articles, both scientific and otherwise, have covered the subject of using beer as a recovery fluid. The discussion garnered so much attention that major publications such as Outside Magazine, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal decided to weigh in. Initially, reactions trended towards the positive with data showing that beer has a similar protein to carbohydrate ratio as recovery drinks (approximately 4:1), which aids both muscle recovery and production. Adding to these publications was a study by Scherr et al. at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, showing that the polyphenols in beer helped reduce inflammation after strenuous exercise and thereby decrease recovery times and the likelihood of injury. However, a key component of recovery fluids is, well, the fluid, as water is necessary for many of the processes involved in recovery. Unfortunately for the post-race beer, a widely acknowledged feature of alcohol is its diuretic effects. Without water, the beneficial aspects of an amber ale start to pale. As critiques of the true efficacy of beer for recovery began rising, an additional study by Desbrow et al. at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, tried to strike a balance by formulating a low-alcohol, high-sodium recovery beer, and the results showed potential. However, the response to low-alcohol beer has been tepid, and further research has largely condemned beer for impairing protein synthesis, a key part of muscle recovery as well as simply staying alive. A comprehensive summary of the argument against beer is available in Devon Jackson’s Outside magazine article.

A mixed bag at best and downright bad at worst, the physiological effects of beer prevent it from being the king of recovery drinks. However, Jackson concludes his article with the sentence: “Other than the social side of it, I can’t see a benefit to alcohol at all.” Clutching at straws, let’s take a look at the social side of imbibing for recovery!

Ideally, that post-run beer is being consumed with friends, some of whom might be very new and very temporary, but friends all the same. Assuming this is true, there may be a case for the recovery benefits of beer through its impact on stress. To begin, a study by Perna and McDowell on elite athletes found that high cortisol levels, which is a biological marker for stress, are related to prolonged recovery times. Simplified, the more stressed you are, the longer it takes to recover. So, how is beer connected to stress? Easy, through that social network that forms around the tent, ie. your very new friends. By interacting with other happy people you can experience increased feelings of social support, which, in turn, leads to increased production of oxytocin, a compound that buffers the activity of cortisol according to a study by Heinrichs et al. Thus, positive social interactions with a frosty mug may improve your rate of recovery by decreasing your stress levels. Of course, as the critically minded will note, the beer tent isn’t exactly necessary for increased feelings of social support, so…

One last straw to grasp at! A relatively under-researched topic, scientists have been studying the role of alcohol as a motivator for exercise. The general relationship between alcohol and exercise is documented in a study by French et al. that shows a positive relationship between time spent exercising and number of drinks consumed. However, the study does not elucidate whether alcohol creates motivation through guilt, the promise of celebration, or some alternative factor. That is, were the participants trying to burn off the beer, was the celebratory beer the motivator for exercise, or was the reason something else entirely? Both theories seem possible, and further research will have to be done to try and discern the exact nature of the relationship between exercise and imbibing. However, regardless of those findings, the idea of using alcohol as a motivator is problematic given issues with dependency and other negative health effects.

As such, the argument for beer is tenuous at best. With regards to physiological recovery, science shows that beer is a no-no, and consuming alcohol to alleviate stress or as a motivator opens up a whole separate can of worms that is probably best left untouched. In conclusion, the post-run beer is much like a singing siren. It sounds wonderful, but it’ll leave you smashed on the rocks.

Of course, I’d hazard a guess that this blog isn’t going to change most of your post-race rituals all that much, and that’s A-OK. Others might fall into the category of being too blitzed to read or fully comprehend this blog in the first place. If you are one of those individuals, cheers to ya! The next round is on that guy behind you!

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Will has been running competitively since high school, and is currently running with the HOKA Aggies, a post-collegiate club here on the central coast of California. With a preference for the humorous and the verbose, he enjoys playing the wordsmith almost as much as his daily runs.

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