Monday, January 16, 2017

If You Stop Drinking Alcohol, Does It Make You a Better Runner? My 40-Day Test…

As an athlete who also enjoys an alcoholic beverage from time to time (okay, daily for the most part), I’ve often pondered if my love of a good IPA or classic Manhattan has been holding back my running potential. Formal studies on the effect of alcohol consumption on training and recovery seem fairly inconclusive, yet most coaches I have worked with are quite insistent a 5-10% gain can be realized with sobriety alone.  There’s also the promise of weight loss (six pack abs!), better sleep, smoother skin, cost savings, less offensive breath, and an infinitely smaller likelihood of a DUII or drunk driving accident. Boy, that seems like a lot of pluses!

So why haven’t I taken a break from drinking before? Well, the reality is that alcohol is a big part of my social fabric, as it is for many of us in Western society. I look forward to unwinding at home with a cocktail, enjoy beers with friends after a long run, often fine dine for work, and celebrate every holiday with wines and champagnes alongside my extended family. Nearly always in moderation, but still, regular occasions to lift a glass are frequent. “Celebrate early and often” is my motto, after all! In truth, I haven’t had a 30-day break from alcohol since I was 15 years old…that’s 32 years now. Whoa…kind of freaky when you think about it that way.

Such a streak begs the obvious and deeper question…do I have a dependency on alcohol? My life is not full of alcoholic-level problems (thank god) but it’s important to take a good look at the psychological part of the question, for my family does have a checkered history in this department. When I reach for a drink, do I want it, or do I really NEED it? Well, if I’m injured and can’t run, had a hard day at work, and come home to a 5-year-old who has already taken down Mommy with a 15-hour tirade of screaming, I will fill that wine glass to the top for sure. But there are also many days it doesn’t even cross my mind to have a drink. I guess I am somewhere on the spectrum.

Profiles of Alcohol Consumption - Where Am I?

Actually, I know exactly where I am on the spectrum relative to other alcohol consumers - I am in the 87th percentile. I got this from a fascinating study of alcohol consumption done by the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), and detailed in Philip J. Cook's book "Paying the Tab," If you let me digress for a moment and go a bit deeper on this study, I think you’ll find this fascinating. I promise, we will get back to the question of alcohol and running performance, and what happened when I took 40 days off.

If you take all adults in this study and put them in “deciles”, you can better answer the question “where am I relative to other alcohol consumers” and “how much does the top 10% of alcohol consumers drink”. Here are some highlights on how it breaks down – see if you can find yourself in here:
  • At the 60th percentile (ie, 60% of all adults in the study), the average adult consumes 0.63 drinks/week. That means almost two thirds of all adults have one drink every other week or don’t drink at all. Really? Who are these people?!? I know a few, but two out of three adults is huge. It turns out there are lots of them, for reasons of personal preference, religion, and more.
  • At the 70th percentile, it’s 2.17 drinks/week. This is likely an occasional drinker, such as someone who consumes once on the weekend or when they are out a concert, game, or dining out.
  • At the 80th percentile, it’s 6.25 drinks/week. This is close to your “one glass of wine with dinner” kind of drinker. Some health experts say one glass of red wine per day might actually be healthy for you.
  • At the 90th percentile, it’s 15.28 drinks/week. At first this sounds like a lot, but if you have a daily libation like I do, you’re already pretty close. Consider the size of your pour as well…a tall glass of wine or pint of beer is actually two servings. So you might be closer than you think.
  • To make you feel better, take a look at the top decile, because they come in at 73.85 drinks/week. Think about that number for a second…that’s 10 drinks per day, every day, without stopping, ever. That’s two bottles of wine with dinner or a 12-pack of beer with lunch. It is shocking…and it’s also 1 in 10 adults around you right now. One factoid about this group that I find interesting is that the top 10% consumes enough to drive well over 50% of all alcoholic purchases in nearly every category (wine, beer, spirits, etc.). So they next time you ask yourself “why is this beer commercial so stupid?”, realize they are targeting people who are already drunk every hour of the day. “Butt joke…Horses…Budweiser” could be about all they can retain.  
If you don’t find yourself on the upper end of the alcoholic consumption curve, it could be you have another vice/passion/escapist pursuit that is similar. Other consumption curves have similar distribution patterns that follow a pareto rule, where the top 10-20% end up doing 80% of the consumption. Examples include TV and other passive media (heavy use increases more in eras of fear…thanks President Trump), sports appreciation (especially if you combine live events, TV, fantasy leagues, etc), nicotine consumption (high regular use, but shorter lifetime value), social media (the mother of all addictive habits, and completely unregulated), sugar consumption (a daily Red Bull and bowl of sugar cereal might enough to put you in the top 20%), pornography, and even exercise addiction (honestly, how are we all not in the 90th percentile here?). For things like caffeine, cannabis, or religious studies, the curve is flatter (ie, not as many superusers), but these can still be a dominant pursuit. The human brain likes its dopamine fix, and when it finds easy access, you think about it every 38-55 seconds. And oddly, it appears some of these “vices” double up. If you love sports at the 90th percentile, there’s a good chance your alcohol consumption will be on the high end. Weed loves music. Exercise loves caffeine. Religion loves porn (ha, ha…just kidding…OR NOT!!!). I’ve had data scientists dig into so much of this it would make your head spin. Spin harder, I mean.

Okay, digression complete. But fascinating, no?

The 40-Day Sobriety Test - What Happened

So on October 16th, I took a break from alcohol. Not for any specific purpose or amount of time, but just to see what happens, and a secret hope my athletic performance would get a boost. I focused on making sure I didn’t just swap out one vice for another, but as you’ll see, that took more work than I expected. Here’s how it panned out:

Week 1: It only took a few days for my sugar cravings to go through the roof, part of a persistent increased hunger that was particularly challenging in the evenings. Soon I turned to decaf tea, but it took some effort to not snack all the time. I also noticed my anxiety was higher when I didn’t have an easy outlet to “unwind” on a daily basis. In my social world, I found most people thought it was great I was taking a break, but a few suspected (hoped?) there was a deeper gossip-worthy story behind it.

Week 2: My sleep improved dramatically, although in a weird way. Normally I feel groggy on my way to bed, and wake up once in the night around 2am (usually blaming Ace, the pug who sleeps at my side). Now my brain was more active at bedtime, but suddenly my eyes would close and I would wake up 7-8 hours later. It felt great! Another odd effect was that my poop was amazing. I had thought my somewhat loose morning routine was due to coffee, but apparently alcohol was contributing. I was also three pounds lighter, which is about 2% of my bodyweight. The math doesn’t quite line up on that one, however, given that I only cut about 2,000 calories/week out of my diet by removing alcohol. One friend suggested it could be that I’m not mowing down pretzels/Chex mix/other beer friendly snacks that always seem to accompany a drink.

Week 3: Thanks to the improved sleep, I felt like I was recovering better from harder workouts. It was interesting to me that it took three weeks for this to kick in. On the social side of things, everyone now wanted to meet for coffee instead of beers…one vice replacing another!  I became hyperaware that coffee is a very different social lubricant than alcohol…you can get folks talking, but it’s a bit harder to get to the truth. My checkbook was showing I was saving about $100/week. 

Week 4: This was the first week where I felt I had a “new normal” routine, and wasn't thinking much about alcohol. I stayed with the nightly tea, and the sugar cravings pretty much disappeared. My running felt better, but I wasn’t going any faster. I hadn’t lost any more weight (still the three pounds) but also hadn’t gained it back. My friends and family were getting used to me not drinking, and all the awkwardness that started with this little experiment pretty much ended. Meditation and focus came more easily, which was nice. I also didn’t miss that often-judgmental internal voice that comes with a few beers.

Week 5: On Thanksgiving, I was handed a glass of champagne while toasting and giving thanks for everything that had happened this year. It was a very special year, and I have a lot to be grateful for. In the moment, I decided my sobriety test would come to an end, and I drank that one glass. It tasted magical, like it was made with fairy dust.

Since Thanksgiving, my alcohol consumption has returned to more regular intake, but only to about half the level of what it was previously. It turns out a nice cup of tea can be a great way to relax at home, and I probably wouldn’t have found that without this little experiment. I also enjoy the meditation on a clear head, which feels like a good enough treat to skip drinks the previous night. The weight came back, but honestly I ate enough on Thanksgiving to cover the measly three pounds. I’m still not sure if I’m running faster or adapting to training, but the sobriety test had undeniable benefits to my daily routine.

I hope sharing this was helpful, and perhaps encourages you to put your own consumption in check, alcohol or otherwise. If you have stories of your own, please share!

See you on the trails…