The New Niggle: Can you drink alcohol and live an active life?

Welcome to a new series of posts on Running for August!  There are lots of unexpected issues that come up when you workout or run, and whenever I’ve mentioned them on instagram the response is largely “I thought I was the only one!”. So I’m now dedicating a space on this blog to discuss the niggles that effect your life as well as your legs.

I’m starting with an issue I’ve been asked about a lot recently: Can you drink alcohol and live an active life?

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This is a really tricky question.  In a nutshell, alcohol just isn’t good for you.

Most people know that alcohol is high in calories, but the real problem is the negative effect it can have on your metabolism.  Dr Sarah Jarvis, Medical Advisor to alcohol education charity Drinkawaresays: “When drinking, the body prioritises the breakdown of alcohol over the absorption and release of essential nutrients, so a heavy drinking session will slow down the amount of calories you’re able to burn off at the gym the next day.”

This is if you can get out of bed to go to the gym on a hangover….

Further to this the way alcohol is absorbed by the body can also reduce the amount of fat you’re able to burn by exercising. Because your body isn’t designed to store alcohol, it tries to expel it as quickly as possible. This gets in the way of other processes, including absorbing nutrients and burning fat. So as well as slowing down the burning of calories, alcohol gets in the way of the nutritional benefits of the healthy meals you eat.

However, a lifestyle where you feel like you are denying yourself isn’t good for you either, particularly if you prioritise your fitness to the point of excluding all other enjoyment.

I spent just over six weeks teetotal before the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2015.  Whilst I felt more awake and my understanding of my body definitely improved, there were times during this period where I felt a little bored as I wasn’t able to indulge in a glass of wine with my friends and family.

I was really excited for my first drink post-marathon, and a triumphant glass of champagne did not disappoint!  However, the next glass of wine I didn’t really enjoy, and this has been the case on every occasion where I have drunk alcohol recently.  It’s not that I dislike it, but I do feel a lot less interested in it than I used to and it really makes me feel rubbish the next day now.  I’ve always been a lightweight and prone to a hangover, but I now feel really dreadful the next day after just two glasses of wine!

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Post-marathon I believe that a social life including alcohol can be compatible with an active lifestyle.

At the end of the day I don’t want to live a lifestyle where I feel I am denying myself, but equally I don’t want to drink for the sake of it being a social norm and if it’s not something I feel like doing.  If I’ve worked hard in the gym and been conscientious with my eating then I want to feel the effects of that, but equally if I fancy a glass of wine then I want to know I can without derailing my training.  Healthy living is a holistic lifestyle and the most important thing for me about any healthy lifestyle is that it be a happy one too.

The key here is balance and understanding.  I’ve already mentioned how drinking means bad news for your metabolism, but if you want more information then visit the Drinkaware website. However, putting this information into action can be difficult and without the marathon as my motivation I know there would have been times when I would have slipped up and had a drink.

Here are five great ways to cut back on alcohol without missing out on time with your friends:

  1. Order Prosecco

This sounds silly but if you like to order wine or cocktails then ordering a glass of prosecco is a great alternative.  This is because prosecco comes in a measure of 125ml.  This is the same as a small glass of wine. It feels celebratory and because it is slightly more expensive you are likely to order less!

Wine measures in bars are misleading.  On a Friday after a long week who wouldn’t have a large glass of wine, or two, or three.   However, if you have just three large glasses of wine – something that doesn’t seem excessive at all – then you’ve drunk a bottle of wine.  If this is what you want to do then enjoy, but most people don’t realise how large wine measures are, and if they knew that a large glass meant a third of a bottle would probably have a small.

Order predetermined small measures such as prosecco, a single spirit and soda water or a half pint of lager.

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  1. Don’t do double weekends!

If you go out on a Friday night then don’t go out on Saturday, and vice versa.  When I started training I stopped going out on Saturday nights because I wanted to do my long runs on Sunday mornings.  I found myself making plans with friends that meant going for meals, cooking in, going to galleries, and a hell of a lot of brunches! When I stopped going out on Saturday nights I spent more time and better quality time with my friends.

Ultimately, if you have a full time job then you only have two days off a week and I know that if I spend the entirety of it hungover then I start the next week tired, demotivated, and not very satisfied.

  1. Replace going for drinks with an exercise class or healthy activity

If you don’t want to the ‘boring one’ drinking soda water with lime, then see if you can change the scenery entirely.  Spending time with friends  in a healthy environment still means spending time with a friend.

Whilst “does anyone fancy going for a run?” tends to fall on deaf ears for me, I’ve found asking people if they want to get involved with a class or event works really well.  There is such a variety of classes, studios and healthy restaurants out there now that it’s easy to find something fun to do -I particularly like Boom Cycle, Psycle and Barry’s Bootcamp

  1. Make yourself aware and accountable with Drinkaware’s free mobile app

Use Drinkaware’s free mobile app, available on iPhone and Android, to track the alcohol and calories you’re drinking and get support to cut back when you’re at home or out and about

  1. Set yourself a limit and a goal

Giving up drinking before the marathon was relatively straightforward because my goal was fixed and limits clear.

I work far better with clear deadlines and instructions than a general sense of what I should do.  Decide what your goal is – be it a fitness achievement, a holiday, or a work deadline – and decide what you can drink until you have reached this goal.  Saying no for a reason that you know is important to you is far easier than a sort-of-maybe-no out of a general sense that you should – most of all because it’s  easy to be tempted out of a pure sense of rebellion!

Choose why, choose what and understand how you’re going to do it.  Then you can focus on how you’ll celebrate when  you have done it.

If you have any ideas on future niggles to discuss, or have been trying to cut back on drinking then let me know.

Thank you so much to Drinkaware for all of your help with this post.

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