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 abound. “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…



27 comments:

  1. Scott, this post really speaks to me -- thank you for writing it! I'm on Day 17 of a 30-day break. I decided to take a vacation from drinking because my nightly 1 - 2 drinks (just chardonnay & beer, I don't drink hard alcohol -- as if that makes it more OK) turned into 3 - 4 every single night last fall and through the holidays; e.g. a beer before dinner, 2 glasses or half a bottle of wine during dinner, and one more glass of wine or beer while watching TV. I blame it on stress, watching the election news etc etc ... in any case, the level of consumption felt way too heavy and needy, and had a negative effect on my sleep. I woke up too many mornings feeling sleep-deprived and heavy-headed. These two weeks have gone better than I thought; I am grateful to have de-linked the feeling I need wine/beer to enjoy cooking and eating dinner. I don't want to give it up forever, because I do love wine & beer; but I want to feel after a month like it's not a nightly thing, and that 1 - 2 glasses in one night is plenty. I think the Moderation Management movement (check out their website for advice) is a good thing, and I hope I can make it work for me. I'm sharing all this publicly to hold myself accountable, and because it helps to talk about it. Oh, and by the way, I haven't lost weight (yet) because I'm still eating a little heavily, especially during the day at my desk (my other vice). But, I am sleeping so much better, and also, I've broken the habit of post-dinner munching now that I'm not drinking. OK that's plenty of sharing on my part! Thanks for posting!

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    1. That's great, Sarah! I am eager to hear how it goes for you.

      I've had some periods where that nightly 1-2 drinks suddenly becomes 3-4 drinks and sticks there. My trick is to fool myself with the "big pour" - just one glass of wine, but it's a mason jar filled to the top.

      That's great you're seeing the sleep benefit. It was my friend Joe who got me on this test because he had quit drinking and said "my sleep is amazing...you think you're sleeping okay, then you quite alcohol, and realize you really weren't that okay after all". Sleep is THE BEST!!!

      Good luck, and keep up the writing!!!

      SD

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    2. Thanks Scott! BTW I too have sugar craving. But I figure it's healthier to have an Izzy natural soda (approx 120 cals) before or during dinner instead of wine. Plus, honey in tea after dinner. I am trying to practice with the fizzy juice soda to sip more slowly and not gulp. I'm a gulper.

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  2. I am one of the 60% of Americans who doesn't really drink (one drink/month maybe), but I've always felt like I was in a very small minority, maybe because I live in a state with a very beer-heavy culture. It's actually really cool to see that chart. I am probably close to the top of the exercise curve though, and I go off caffeine at least once a year for a few weeks to reset my tolerance...

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    1. Thanks for posting. Yes, isn't that cool that 1/3 of adults don't drink at all? I'm with you that my perception is that this was a much smaller number. But I've been asking around at work, the kids school, at races, and by and large the ratio seems to hold. It seems at least one out of three don't drink at all. Perhaps the media is skewing us, for it certainly is a big part of the ads and plot lines we see. But I was thrilled to find out it was real!

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    2. Yep, I'm in that boat of so very rarely having a glass of wine- maybe twice a year. I've always thought I was an outlier too. (Though at just over 100lbs I can't really even hold one glass of wine well)

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  3. I wonder how the above study would change, if the study were strictly performed here, in Wisconsin...during football season!

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  4. Hey Scott, thanks for this post. I am going through a very similar scenario. My drinking is confined to the weekends, but I tend to over-do it. Kind of like the college days (I'm 40 now). I recently completed a 50K, and during the training I was very disciplined with my drinking, or lack of. I would drink a single beer on the weekends and that was all I needed. I was so focused on proper training that drinking anymore wasn't even an option. I took a break after the race and during the holidays from training and returned to binge drinking on the weekends. Now that the new year has arrived I am focused again on training and am abstaining from alcohol. I have to admit it hasn't been easy, and acknowledging that is even harder.

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    1. Good for you for identifying it! Even better you are willing to say it out loud.

      I'm like you in that a planned race on the horizon makes it easier to "be good" with alcohol, sugar, etc. The ultras can be quite a slog if you're not in top shape, but they are a lot of fun if you are in top shape.

      Best of luck!

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  5. Thanks for sharing this. Great analysis! I didn't expect to find it so interesting but I think you have hit upon a deeper educational tool for all of us. We (humans) tend toward pattern to organize our lives.

    Moral of the story: it is good to check one's patterns every so often to see what the pattern is actually serving.

    As you know, I'm in that maybe-4-drinks-a-year category, thanks first to allergies but, over time, moving to a life pattern that just does not include drinking on a regular basis. My addictive vices run towards salty and sweet food, so drinking doesn't help that! When I do have a drink, it is usually in a social celebratory event where friends are also celebrating. I love the way I can "loosen" up, and I love a good vodka, but I go back to my happy drink-less patterns the next day. I don't associate with people who drink..not an intentional thing, but it just isn't in the fabric of my life which tends to run towards old lady groups meeting in churches and homes and dining out in restaurants that serve alcohol but alcohol is not the reason for their existence.

    I know part of my pattern now comes from a lifelong distaste for being in settings where people who cannot handle their drink over-consume.I wonder what percentage of those non-drinkers come from families where one or more people were obnoxious and/or dangerous with drinking.

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    1. A fascinating question! It wouldn't surprise me.

      I still find it much harder to go without my mobile phone and the Internet for a few days than skipping alcohol. That one should be next on my "check your patterns" list.

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  6. I've taken some breaks from alcohol in the past, as I've had periods where my casual relationship became more problematic, but it always seemed to natural to reward my long runs with a few beverages. However, I'm now 2.5 months sans alcohol for a range of reasons, and I'm finding myself in no hurry to go back. Aside from working through social dynamics at the holidays, alongside my husband and my first dry vacation, it's had a good physical impact on me. I'm training for a tough (for me) race in April, and the coach who developed my plan has me running more days at higher weekly volume than I've ever done before. I am finding that my recovery is incredible - no more "tin man" weekend days for me post-long run - alongside the sleep and skin benefits. I can't say for certain that alcohol is the only factor here, but I definitely think it's a main one. I've also noticed my sugar cravings subsiding a bit; in recent years, alcohol messed with my blood sugar in a bad way, so cutting out alcohol has actually made me crave sweets less. We'll see how it goes moving forward. Thank you for starting this conversation!

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    1. Wow, it sounds like it is doing wonders for you! That is fantastic.

      I found the first few dry vacations to be really interesting too. In the 40 days I took off, I had a family reunion, some date nights, two short vacations, and Halloween. Once everyone around me realized it didn't bother me if they drank, it was totally fine. I think I was actually more social!

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  7. Great read. Due to alcoholmonopoly by systembolaget in Sweden, limited access and opening hours, we get a wider choosing of lower alcoholic beers and less so with wine.

    I find it soothes the beer urge quite well to have a beer of alcoholic % ranging between 0,5 - 3,5 instead of the finer beers i get at systembolaget. With food or to quench my thirst after a longrun.

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  8. WOW I would really struggle with that, but I would be good on FB if I did... I do seem to post a lot of bottles of wine!

    That said my wife is trying to not drink on 1 or 2 or even 3 nights a week, and last week it was only 1 (a shot of Cape Velvet on ice-cream doesn't count!!!)

    Now I do have one non drinking friend (and a brother non drinking) so I think I'm going to get my wife to plan a weekend visit with them and that way we could go two weeks...

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    1. I bet your wife is feeling better with a few days off each week. I found that sobriety really kicked in around the end of week 2, beginning of week 3. So it's worth trying it for a stretch just so you know!

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  9. It blows my mind that 60% of American's basically don't drink. Every restaurant and bar I pass on my way home is always packed during happy hour.

    You should join the tenth percentile for 40 days and see how that affects your running...

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    1. That was my first thought as well! Who are these people in the 60%? But you know, I've been asking in various public settings (other parents at school, running groups, work, etc.) and I'll be darned if it doesn't always come out to about a third don't drink at all and a third very rarely. It seems to be an even mix of "I just don't like it", "drinking is against my religion", and "I prefer a healthier lifestyle".

      When I first found this study a couple of years back, I did try and joint the top decile for a week to see what it took. You're basically drunk or hungover, start early in the day, and there's no in between. The inflammation was unbelievable too - body did not like it and I just felt like the flu was coming on all the time. Now mind you I jumped right into the deep end, so I bet some folks built up a tolerance. Some of the heavy drinkers I interviewed also swore it depended on the type of alcohol - some could drink a whole bottle of wine and swear they don't feel it.

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    2. I have actually been told that people who tend to feel the alcohol less are more prone to become alcoholics, and that this is at least somewhat genetic. I don't know if "effects" includes only feeling drunk/tired while drinking or the after-effects as well. I know for someone like me who feels quite sleepy after like half a cocktail, doing an entire bottle of wine in a night is really not an option.

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  10. I was in that tenth percentile for a while. I was drinking pretty much non-stop whenever I could. I'd have two or three drinks on my lunch break, then drink a half a fifth of bourbon or gin at home in the evening, or more. Somehow, I managed to do this while being happily married, holding down my full-time job, and running ultras (even if I was hungover for several of them). Almost 6 months ago, I decided to take a break. I'm not saying I'll never drink again, but for now, I'm happy to be off it. I've lost almost 20 pounds, I'm saving money, sleeping better, running better, recovering faster, and am just generally happier and more balanced. Sometimes I wish I could be one of those people who just enjoys a drink or two now and then, but I'm just not built that way so- for now, at least- I'm just gonna keep on being dry.

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    1. Wow, nice work! Sounds a turn for the better. I bet you are crushing your runs these days being so light and in a positive mood.

      Thank you for sharing!

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  11. Thank you for a fascinating contribution and great chart. After reading the above comments I can only reinforce what has been said. By the chart, I was in the ninth decile. My problem was that I'd concentrate the drinks in a one or two day span. OK. I quit drinking entirely in August 2008 and haven't had a drink since. I did lose a bit of weight, 1-3% or so off of 155Lbs (I am 5' 10"). I did not get appreciably faster, but that is a function of so many variables and I cannot say that I stayed the same age, or ran the same training routines. I found, as you and so many have shared, that my sleep improved dramatically and permanently. I woke (and wake) with more energy and focus (not always, unfortunately, was I able to dedicate that to running). I may even be a slightly more even-keeled person around the house. I think that, in general, my over-all health has improved. One thing unmentioned (I might have missed it): as well as causing one to consume extra calories (be it through drink itself or snacks) drinking consumes extra dollars. A diet soda or tea is a darn sight cheaper (even in a bar) than a beer (or two). I put that saved money towards trail shoes. Thanks again.

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    1. Nice! I think trail shoes are a better investment...they certainly have better dividends. Thank you for sharing!

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  12. Great post and very informative. Looking at my numbers, my cholesterol level dropped from an average of 215 to 170 since adding a glass of red wine in the evening. I workout less, more stressed, and eat normally. Go figure! Numbers don't lie.

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    1. Well, you must be doing something right in there somewhere!

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  13. I hadn't checked out your blog in a while and I come back to it & this was the first thing I saw (checked in about a month ago but didn't have time to comment then). I have started a long term sobriety for myself because I got into Western States. Or at least that is the main reason I tend to use even though I realize that I've had some issues with alcohol in the past. There was definitely a time when I was in that top 10% but that was before I was involved in triathlon / running. Even after getting started on a healthier lifestyle I was still consuming quite a bit of booze, typically beer. At one point last year I had myself limited to no more than two on a weeknight (managed to cut out lunch drinking) but still would go through four, five maybe even six per day on the weekends. Then the two a night fell away, lunch drinking returned, etc. So I decided that preparing for WS was a good enough reason to take the longest sobriety period of my adult life. For that matter it would probably go back to my youth. Not sure what I'm going to do after WS, though I will likely have at least a celebratory beer after finishing.

    I do believe I am sleeping better, certainly don't wake up like I used to in the middle of the night to pee.

    It's been seven and a half weeks now. It hasn't been at all difficult to do. Just decided not to drink so I don't. It was just what I always did, behavioral pattern I guess.

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    1. That's great! You should be in amazing shape come Western States time.

      I love how an endurance event like WS can be a catalyst to try some life changes. Regardless of what happens after that post-race beer, it will be a fulfilling journey I bet.

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