Does Alcohol BLURRR Your Focus and Put a Nightcap on Your Cycling Performance?

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Joy Murphy

The honest account of how this Zwifter switched his focus from hops to watts. What does giving up alcohol do for his performance and motivation?

Alcohol. It’s an essential part of the favorite beverages of many people. Try convincing one of alcohol’s many fans that it’s the wrong choice, and you’ll discover just how touchy of a subject it is. People love their alcoholic drinks!

 

So, I am not here to convince you to stop drinking. Honestly, I’m not! There are, however, a few basic facts you should know before picking up your favorite alcoholic beverage. Or maybe you already know these facts but have chosen to forget the truth. Perhaps a “lite” refresher course is in order.

A Few Basic Facts About Alcohol

All alcohol has seven calories per gram. Compare that to carbohydrates and protein, which are four calories per gram. (1)

 

There is no nutritional value in alcohol, and it impedes the digestion of nutrients from food. The body cannot store alcohol, which may slow your metabolism since it must first focus on metabolizing the alcohol. (2)

 

Alcohol will affect your blood sugar by first spiking it and then crashing back down. When your blood sugar spikes and drops, you tend to have more cravings and eat more sugary foods or consume more sugar-filled drinks. (2)

 

Red wine contains resveratrol, which is an antioxidant. The alcohol in the wine still has all the adverse effects listed above. The antioxidant is the good part of red wine, and you can get resveratrol in grapes, peanuts, blueberries, cranberries, and pistachios, without the alcohol. (3, 4)

athlete drinking water

Facts Can Be Deceiving

The problem with “facts” and studies is you can read one headline like “One drink a day is good for you,” and without another thought, pour a glass of wine and drink it down. Unfortunately, many studies say different things about wine specifically and alcohol in general.

 

Some even say that the benefits from resveratrol are only shown in animals and not in humans. Other studies say that the risks outweigh the benefits of alcohol, so you are better off eating fruits and nuts. As I mentioned before, however, I am not here to convince you to stop drinking, so enough with the “facts.” Let’s talk about people.

The Chosen One

I have been an endurance athlete and coach for over 15 years. During that time, I became intrigued by the amount of alcohol athletes consume and its effect on them. Specifically, I was curious to see how much better an athlete could be if they gave up alcohol. I picked an easy subject, JB.

 

I learned that JB drank alcohol daily with friends and family, generally under social circumstances. He prefers wine or beer over hard liquor. But make no mistake, whatever the drink, JB would find his buzz.

 

Also, JB drinks for the “fun” of drinking. He does not drink to control stress or to help him deal with anxiety and would be the first to tell you he has a good life.

 

JB is also a solid cyclist, a B category Zwift rider, with a 20-minute power of 325 watts. He is also competitive and races consistently. So through a little bit of conversation, I convinced him to completely give up alcohol and focus on training for the bike. I wanted to see what results JB could achieve by being completely sober.

 

Four long, sober, weeks later JB set a new FTP and became an A category Zwifter. He did 334 watts on a Grit Zwift ride on October 15th. Without alcohol distracting him, JB’s focus on the bike led to an almost immediate improvement.

athletic performance chart

The Outcome - A Possible Case of Compulsion Transfer

Of course, I wanted to look beyond the apparent conclusion of JBs better results when not hungover. Over time, I observed that JB has an “addictive” personality. When we talked about it, he agreed that he is “all or nothing” in most things, and as many of you may agree, Zwift can be pretty addictive.

 

When JB stopped drinking, the most interesting thing I noticed was how fast he transferred his compulsive focus to cycling. Just days after JB stopped drinking, he intensified his cycling and even doubled up on daily rides.

 

As a coach, I feared he was adding too much volume to his training. I spoke with JB about my concerns with this new level of cycling and the fatigue or injuries that can accompany it. JB agreed he might have come out too strong and decided to follow a more consistent training plan, including some basic strength training provided by me.

 

You can plainly observe JBs new targeted focus in his results. JBs Chronic Training Load (Fitness) increased over eight weeks rapidly. The Training Peaks Performance Management Chart shows that he peaked higher than ever.

athletic performance alcohol

Unintended Consequences of a Healthier Focus

As Zwifters enjoying regular group rides, we noticed that the in-ride chat switched focus. Instead of discussing how much JB drank the night before, we had topics like “coping with single-leg exercises” or “the joys of the plank.”

 

It impacted not only JB’s focus but also the focus of the entire group. When suitably motivated and hangover-free, athletes see their potential growth, and it can become a new obsession. Set a new goal, beat that goal, and then create another one.

 

As I explained in Powering Through Contentment – Satisfaction, Complacency, or a Crutch? that I previously contributed to The ZOM, it all comes down to what drives you. Drinking alcohol is like cycling with a flat tire. You will still move forward, but it’s a whole lot harder. 

cycling performance data

Alcohol and Athletes Is Well Documented

There is a lot of available information about athletes and drinking. As Alex Hutchinson wrote in Outside Magazine, athletes drink more alcohol than non-athletes. Because most athletes drink socially, there are plenty of opportunities.

 

Many athletes drink more beers than the miles they ran at a local race. It’s a rite of passage for some to drink after a race or hard workout, a well-deserved reward.

 

Do these same athletes wonder if their race would have been better if they weren’t drinking as much? What if, like JB, they switched their focus from drinking after the race to preparation before the race?

athlete doing balance exercise

It Takes Tremendous Discipline

For JB, quitting alcohol cold turkey was not very difficult. He is an “All or Nothing” type of personality. But that is not to say he will NEVER drink again. It has been interesting to see how the Zwift support system has helped him not drink for 12 weeks now.

 

The need for competition has overtaken the need for alcohol. It isn’t that easy for everyone, I know. Alcohol itself is often not the problem but a symptom. A serious one, and it takes strength to diagnose.

Editor’s Note: Everyone here at The ZOM acknowledges the impact that addiction has on so many lives. We are sensitive to the life-or-death struggle that is real for many of our fellow virtual cyclists and their families. If you think that you or a loved one is at risk of falling into a life of addiction, get help. There are many incredible resources available, and no shame in admitting that you need a wheel.

Conclusion - Choose Wisely and For the Right Reasons

I think we all know that drinking blurs our focus. But do we recognize the extent of that blurriness? More importantly, can we see a clear path out of the fog and into the cycling world we want?

 

As the New Year approaches, make some changes, not a resolution, an actual change. Some people have success giving up alcohol for a month and then just drinking on special occasions. Some people may cut back and drink only on weekends.

 

It is essential to take an honest look at the impact alcohol has on you, not through “beer goggles.” Lying to other people about the effect is one thing, but if you lie to yourself, you will not see the improvement you deserve.

 

Drinking at night can cause you to struggle in the morning, and your workouts suffer. Dropping the beer on Friday will prevent you from getting dropped during the badge hunt ride Saturday.

 

As an endurance coach, my job is to help athletes exceed their goals, step out of their comfort zone and reach their full potential. Shift your focus, put down the bottle, get on your bike and go full throttle. I’ll see you on the road.

Your Thoughts?

I’ll just leave it at that.  What are your thoughts on the adult beverage debate?  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know, I think?

 

For other helpful and interesting cycling-related tips and suggestions from exercise professionals like Coach Joy, check out the Training & Performance page of The ZOM!

References
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Stu O
Stu O
27 days ago

Great thoughtful article from an objective approach! Thank you, Joy!

Joy Murphy
Member
Joy Murphy(@joymurphy)
27 days ago
Reply to  Stu O

Thank you for reading! Please share with others!

Robert Nowlin
27 days ago

It is true that whatever you do, it should be what will help you make progress on your goals. I do not drink alcohol very often. Rather, my “hang up” is with food. I eat to celebrate, to self sooth, to take away my boredom, or I use the “need for energy” as my reason. Four weeks ago I started experimenting with intermittent fasting. Doing a bit of research, I noticed that in my 8 years of regular cycling, I believed a very wrong myth about how the body gets energy during a workout. As someone who has dealt with low blood sugar during fasting, it was quite the surprise to learn that athletes will do intense workouts during a fast. I experimented with rides while on the 18th hour of a fast, and found that my body had no less energy. In fact, I was less distracted with whatever my intestines were digesting at the time. I did a ride yesterday after a small lunch and noticed that I did not feel the need to replace anything from my bloodstream as my body had begun to prime itself to use fat for fuel. Also, I rode twice as far as I normally would after 4 days off of the bike. I have lost 10 pounds in 1 month, and my head is clearer and my anxiety and depression are much improved.

Joy Murphy
Member
Joy Murphy(@joymurphy)
27 days ago
Reply to  Robert Nowlin

That is pretty interesting. I think food is a nemesis for many as well. Specifically, sugar or processed foods. I also am experimenting with fasting after reading Adam Upshaw’s article.

Suzanne
Suzanne
27 days ago

So, you attribute his performance improvement to a shift in his “focus” from drinking to training. Fine, but don’t make the mistake of generalizing to all people and saying that drinking in and of itself harms performance. If someone’s training focus is diminished by the amount or the way they drink, and if they are regularly hung over like you imply this athlete was before the switch, that doesn’t sound like a social, “for fun” drinker to me. If someone needs to get off the alcohol in order to increase their training load, they have a problem with alcohol and yes, getting off of it will improve their performance. But nothing you observed with this athlete indicates, even anecdotally, that a moderate drinker’s athletic performance is diminished by alcohol consumption. The change you saw sounds like it came from an increased training load, not the elimination of alcohol in and of itself.

Todd Harper
Todd Harper
27 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne

I’d assume since the body converts a portion of consumed alcohol to Acetaldehyde, a toxic substance. That a degree of physical improvement would be inherent when any level of drinker stopped self-poisoning. But I think the other crucial facet that both you and Joy hit upon is that when one quits drinking, that time and habit has to be replaced. The test subject used cycling through Zwift. Post alcohol replacement choices are a very critical part of the quitting process, and as Joy has shown here has the ability to change one’s focus & habits to improve their physical performance.

Joy Murphy
Member
Joy Murphy(@joymurphy)
26 days ago
Reply to  Todd Harper

This was exactly my point. It wasn’t just about the alcohol. It was that JB did not have the motivation and drive when he was drinking.

Joy Murphy
Member
Joy Murphy(@joymurphy)
26 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne

I didn’t want to go too deep in this article about true addiction or say that JB had a problem. This is just one athlete’s experience. I can say that we both believe age is a factor. JB is 53 years old and that plays a big part as well. For JB and many others, the increased training load was not going to happen if he continued drinking.

kEvin S
kEvin S
26 days ago

This article very much resonated with me. I quit drinking two years ago to see how it would impact my Ironman training. Within weeks I was surprised by the positive impact – both generally as in my legs felt better, I was able to train harder etc… to specific and semi-obvious things like realizing I was the only guy at the 5:30am swim session that routinely swam hungover.

To be fair I was drinking more than most – at least a couple beers per night and enough to have a mild hangover frequently.

Between the improved training sessions, the loss of so many dead calories and the improved recovery I have become a much better athlete. And husband. And dad.

And one important lesson I’ve learned: when the group ride ends at the bar and you order seltzer, no one cares or notices.

Joy Murphy
Member
Joy Murphy(@joymurphy)
23 days ago
Reply to  kEvin S

I tell people that no one else cares if you are drinking. Put Kombucha in your glass and laugh at the drunk people around you!

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