"Addressing alcohol and drug related issues: reducing harm and supporting positive change"
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Jun
19

Be Alcohol Aware - A Perspective - Alcohol and Sport

As part of our Be Alcohol Aware campaign to mark NI Alcohol Awareness Week 2018, ASCERT colleague, Marty McCann, SEDACT Connections Project Worker, shares a perspective on alcohol and sport.

"Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was the first competitor in the history of the Olympic Games to be disqualified for failing a drugs test. So what substance led to the Swedish pentathlete and his team mates losing their bronze medals in the 1968 games? Steroids? Human Growth Hormone? Amphetamines?

"Actually the first drugs test positive at the Olympics was caused by alcohol. Liljenwall admitted he had taken some beers to calm his nerves before the shooting round, and most people would probably agree that guns and alcohol are not an ideal combination.

"Many substances fall foul of doping laws because they are seen as performance enhancing, athough Liljenwall’s case is probably one of the few times when the use of alcohol in any sporting endeavour could be seen to have a positive effect. In fact, when it comes to any form of aerobic or anaerobic performance alcohol normally results in lower returns for physical investment.

"Training works because it causes tiny tears in ligaments and soft tissue muscles which become stronger when they repair themselves (which is why recovery is an important part of the training process). Alcohol can slow this process down and reduce the rate at which muscle is gained (Andy Darling, Alcohol and Exercise). Most of the benefits of training come about when an individual is in a deep sleep and naturally producing growth hormones- poor quality sleep means this production will happen at a lower level, and the effect of alcohol on getting good REM sleep is well established. If the body is still trying to process any alcohol still in the system, it can’t totally relax, even when the person is asleep.

"Since a healthy adult can only metabolise alcohol at a rate of around one unit an hour (meaning a single pint of beer can take around 2 ½ hours to leave the system), drinking can have an impact for quite some time after the glass or can has been put down. While the liver is metabolising the ethanol (alcohol) in the body, it can’t produce as much glucose which is where a lot of an athlete’s energy comes from (Prof Ron Maughan, Loughborough University). This has an obvious impact on performance and can hand an opponent an extra advantage.

"Every athlete will also be aware of that painful enemy, lactic acid, which strikes when people need it least. The presence of alcohol in the body during exercise increases the production of lactate, which no one needs, particularly in the closing stages of a sprint or a tough climb on a bike!

"Because alcohol also slows down the flow of blood to muscles, consumption soon after an event can lead to longer recovery times from injury as well as masking damage, due to its anaesthetic qualities. A post game drink can mean the seriousness of certain injuries may not be apparent until the effect of the alcohol wears off, and an individual could have made the injury worse by walking around on it as they weren’t getting the pain messages that let them know something is wrong. 

"In many sports, a post-event drink is seen as a traditional wind down, and that it has been well earned. While the social aspect and reward are important, it is worth remembering that it can have a negative impact on the physical development so it is worth keeping an eye on consumption and remembering the consequences of overdoing it. No one wants to sabotage their own hard work, so it is an important balance to strike, so keeping it within limits and not exceeding the daily or weekly guidance can go a long way to ensuring individuals get what they want out of their sport and fulfilling their potential. People want to be athletes not ascetics, so balance is important.

"If this sounds like a topic you would like to know more about, the South Eastern Drug and Alcohol Connections Service offer free awareness sessions for sports clubs on the impact of substances (including alcohol) on performance. They can be contacted on connections@sedact.info for more information and are more than willing to work closely with any groups or clubs who wish to look at the impact of alcohol or drugs on their members."

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