Alcohol, Athletes & Pressure to Drink

By Nancy Clark MS, RD

Ask any coach or college athletic director, and you’ll hear concern
about alcohol and athletes. Rightfully so. Alcohol and athletics is a
dangerous duo, associated with negative consequences including
hangovers, nausea and vomiting, poor grades in school, fights,
arguments, memory loss, driving under the influence, and trouble with
the law—to say nothing of injuries. Yet, tailgating before football
games, quenching thirst at the pub after a team workout, and celebrating
victories with champaign is perceived as the norm.
College athletes are more likely to drink than non-athletes. Serious
recreational runners drink more than their sedentary counterparts.
Unfortunately, alcohol is a highly addictive substance and is the most
abused drug in the United States, more so than steroids. Prolonged
drinking can damage the liver, heart, and brain, and result in
cirrhosis, pancreatitis, irregular heart beats, stroke, and
malnutrition. More oral cancer is seen among those who are just moderate
drinkers as compared to abstainers.

What can be done about this problem?
To address the problem of alcohol abuse among student-athletes, many
college campuses are educating students about social norms—the beliefs
about what is normal and expected in social situations. For example,
despite popular belief, “everyone” does not drink nor do “most students”
get drunk all the time.
A 1999 survey at Southern Methodist University asked these four
questions to students on a Friday about alcohol use on the previous night:
Did you drink last night?
Did you get drunk last night?
What percentage of SMU students do you think drank last night?
What percentage of SMU students do you think got drunk last night?

The answers showed major misperceptions about alcohol norms:
-Only 20% of students surveyed reported drinking the previous night, yet
they believed that over half drank.
-Only 8% reported getting drunk, yet they believed at least one-third
got drunk.
-Of students who drank, most reported consuming only a few drinks per
week. Yet they believed most students were drinking 10 to 15 drinks per
-35% reported abstaining from alcohol, but very few believed that many
of their peers were non-drinkers.

With ongoing social norm education, students will actually change their
drinking practices. For example, a three-year social-norm education
program targeted Division III athletes in a NY State college. It
contributed to a 30% drop in both excessive alcohol consumption and the
negative consequences of drinking. Among student-athletes with the
highest exposure to the program, personal alcohol misuse dropped 50%.
(1) Given that athletes are often role models, this change can have a
positive impact on the entire campus and potentially (eventually) our
entire sports society.

Minimizing negative consequences
If you are among the athletes who chooses to drink large amounts of
alcohol, take note:
• Alcohol is a depressant. Apart from killing pain, it offers no edge
for athletes. You can’t be sharp, quick, and drunk. Pre-competition
alcohol has a deleterious effect on reaction time, accuracy, balance,
eye-hand coordination and endurance. It will not help you exercise
faster, stronger, longer.
• Late night partying that contributes to sleep deprivation before the
next morning’s event hurts performance.
• Alcohol is a poor source of carbohydrates. You can get loaded with
beer, but your muscles will not get carbo-loaded. A 12-ounce can of beer
has only 14 grams of carbs, as compared to 40 grams in a can of soft
drink. Eat pretzels, thick-crust pizza or other carbs along with the beer.
• Alcohol on an empty stomach can quickly lead to a drunken stupor. Be
wise; enjoy the natural high of exercise rather than get brought down by
a few post-exercise beers.
• Alcohol has a diuretic effect–the more you drink, the more fluids you
lose. This is bad for recovery and the next exercise bout. While
low-alcohol beer allows for proper rehydration, regular beer sends
athletes running to the bathroom. One study showed that athletes who
drank beer eliminated about 16 ounces more urine (over the course of 4
hours) than those who drink low-alcohol (2%) beer or alcohol-free beer. (2)
• Your liver breaks down alcohol at a fixed rate (~1 can beer or 4
ounces wine per hour). Exercise does not hasten the process, nor does
coffee. Caffeine just makes you a wide-awake drunk.
• Drinks that contain congeners—whiskey, cognac, and red wine—are more
likely to cause hangovers than other alcoholic beverages. The best
hangover remedy is to not drink excessively in the first place. But if
you have a hangover, drink a salted beverage with carbs, such as
Gatorade or brothy chicken noodle soup.
• The calories in alcohol are easily fattening. People who drink
moderately tend to consume alcohol calories on top of their regular
caloric intake. These excess calories promote body fat accumulation.
• Alcohol stimulates the appetite, making it harder to feel full. If you
are trying to maintain a lean machine, abstaining is preferable to

The good news
Alcohol in moderation can have health benefits. Red wine, for example,
contains health-protective phytochemicals that may reduce the risk of
heart disease. What’s “moderation”?—two drinks per day for men, and one
for women. And have at least one glass of non-alcoholic beverage for
every drink…

Image from:

Nancy Clark MS, RD counsels casual exercisers and competitive athletes
at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, MA
(617-383-6100). Her NEW 2008 Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook
4th Edition, and her Food Guide for Marathoners and Cyclist’s Food Guide
are available via

1. Perkins H and Crais D. 2006. A Successful Social Norms Campaign to
Rreduce Alcohol Misuse Among Collge Student-Athlets. J. Stud Alcohol

2. Sherriffs, S., and R. Maughan. 1997. Restoration of fluid balance
after exercise-induced dehydration: Effects of alcohol consumption. J
Appl Physiol 83(40):1152-1158.

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