Alcohol, Performance and Recovery from Injury


How does Alcohol impact a Rugby Players performance and recovery? 

Alcohol the small molecule shown here, is a difficult substance to discuss with athletes! Alcohol and performance are from conflicting worlds! We take a look at why that is in this article.

It is part of most adult’s lives and has long ben established as the most widely consumed recreational drug in the world. We are providing information here to educate about the processes that get disrupted when you drink alcohol and how it can have a negative influence on your recovery. The impact alcohol can have on your recovery is extremely variable and individual dependent. The impact also depends on a number of factors like timing of consumption, volume of consumption, rate of consumption and injury status. The way we digest and metabolise (remove alcohol from the body) alcohol also varies greatly from person to person.

Membership Program: Offseason 1920 Block 2 – Day 7 Recovery: Alcohol

What happens when you drink Alcohol?

When we drink alcohol the effects can be widespread and long lasting. Throughout the next section we are going to look at the main areas. of impact in the body. 

When we ingest alcohol our body has to put in a lot of effort to metabolise it, the liver is responsible for the majority of alcohol metabolism. The stomach, brain and pancreas all play a role in the metabolism process too. It does this through a number of physiological processes that can influence the body in different ways.

Alcohol enters the digestive tract, most commonly in liquid form. From the stomach the alcohol is absorbed and transported to the liver via the hepatic portal vein. At the liver the alcohol goes through first pass metabolism, this is before the alcohol enters the blood stream and is one of the reasons why men can generally drink more than women. Men metabolise a larger amount of ingested alcohol during the first pass.

There are a number of reasons why drinking alcohol delays your recovery after training or matches or when you have an injury and we have highlighted a few of the most important here for you;

Alcohol thins the blood, and increases bleeding and inflammation

Following contact sports or high intensity training on or off the field a high volume of small injuries is present in the tissues of the body. These areas of micro-trauma are the triggers that cause the body to detect and adapt to stress. They are a perfectly normal part of the body’s adaptation to training. 

There is a feeling of pain and soreness associated with theses micro-traumas and we often describe this as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS when we experience the feeling a day or even two days after training or competition. At a microscopic level, inside the muscle and tissues of the body there is likely to be tearing of fibres and minor bleeding responses in the tissues. In the case of soft tissue injury like a muscle tear the amount of fibres torn and bleeding into the tissue is increased but the process is largely the same.

Alcohol thins the blood this allows more bleeding to take place into the damaged or injured tissues, increasing pain and swelling. It does this through two main mechanisms. The first, it slows the natural coagulation of the blood by making the platelets in the blood less sticky. Coagulation describes the process of clotting when it takes place inside the body as opposed to the clotting of a scab over a cut that is exposed to the air. It is essential to start the repair process over a section of damaged tissue. 

Second, it reduces the actual number of platelets that the body produces in the bone marrow. Platelets are the key cells in starting the repair and recovery process. Without them, or even with them when they aren’t working properly is a sure fire way to delay your recovery. Alcohol also slows repair by reducing the levels of key hormones that are released by the body (Growth Hormone and Testosterone), this will be discussed later in this section.

For the effect of alcohol on inflammation we need to introduce a bit of science.

As we have described above when we train or play sport we damage tissue in the body. This then triggers a repair process that includes inflammation and it’s pathways. A normal product of these pathways are molecules called ‘free radicals’ that are produced through a process called oxidation. Free radicals can come from anywhere really, our own bodies can produce them as in the case of recovering after sport or exercise or we can be exposed to them in our environment. Although they often have a bad press, these free radicals can carry out a number of beneficial functions in the body like fighting off infections. 

Under normal conditions, these free radicals are kept under control by anti-oxidants that you may have heard of when people talk about healthy foods. The antioxidants help to neutralize the free radicals and achieve balance so the free radicals can’t damage healthy tissues in the body. When the ratio between free radicals and antioxidants becomes out of balance either through too many free radicals or not enough antioxidants we enter a state called oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress leads to number of negative consequences on the body. It can damage the DNA, proteins and fat molecules in our cells and has been shown to accelerate the aging process as well as having a role in the development of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), cancers and neurological conditions like Parkinsons disease and Alzheimers.

When we drink the body has to spend a lot of time and energy metabolizing alcohol. If alcohol concentrations are especially high, the process itself increases the amount of free radicals we produce. This is due to the default pathway we use to metabolise alcohol in the liver becomes overwhelmed and the body needs to use a different system to cope. One of the bi-products of this secondary system is free radicals. 

It is a compounding effect that alcohol increases the free radicals we produce but also negatively impacts all of the processes that help us maintain free radical and antioxidant balance like sleep and a good diet. All of this happening of course when the body is already in an inflamed state and producing a higher volume of free radicals because of the damage caused to the body during competition.

Alcohol is a diuretic and can cause you to become dehydrated


Why and How? Your body measures and monitors the amount of fluid we have in our bodies at any given time so if we take on more liquid we shift towards excreting more from the body too. But alcohol can have a more significant effect when compared to drinking the equivalent amount of water. You will have experienced this if you’ve ever been out for a big one and find yourself heading to the toilets with increasing frequency as the evening progresses. 

Alcohol inhibits the release of a hormone called vasopressin, the anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). When ADH is released from the brain it tells your kidneys to hold on to fluid – when we drink alcohol this signal is blocked. It is this impact of alcohol that leads to nausea and headaches if the intake of alcohol is too high and the diuretic action it has go on for too long and your net loss of fluid is too large.

Alcohol disrupts sleep

As we have already read, sleep is one of our fundamentals for recovery. Although alcohol can be seen as a sleep aid, one that people use to get themselves to sleep quicker it is not a good behaviour for members of the general population or athletes. Alcohol tricks you in to thinking that you are getting the sleep you need when actually you are not. 

Alcohol is a sedative, that’s why people often lean towards using it to help them get to sleep. But just like when the body gets exposed to stimulants like caffeine it goes through a dip or a low when the body comes out the other side of exposure to a depressant like alcohol there is a re-activation of body systems. In the case of drinking alcohol before you sleep this will manifest itself in a restless sleep where you are more likely to wake in the night and more likely to toss and turn. Once your body has removed the depressant effect of the alcohol; your heart rate will elevate, your core temperature will start to rise, your brain will become more active and your body will effectively feel like it is waking up. Sometimes it actually will.

Alcohol also limits the amount of time our brain spends in deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is one of the deepest phases of sleep we have and we typically enter our first phase of REM sleep 90 minutes after falling asleep and an average adult can have five to six entries into REM sleep per night.

Unfortunately some of the other phases of sleep that alcohol disrupts are the phases when you get your spikes in Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and testosterone. Both key players in recovery and development for both male and female athletes. It has been reported that HGH secretion can be reduced up to 70% after drinking – a key hormone in repair and recovery from injury it is easy to see why recovering from injury will take longer if you introduce alcohol into the system.

Alcohol numbs pain, and modifies behaviour and judgment

Alcohol can reduce our perception of pain due to it’s influence on the brain. Despite a number of old wives tales, alcohol does not ‘kill’ brain cells per se. It does however make you feel like it could do. Following a match or training we need to be aware of our body’s requirement to recover, one of the key indicators of this is pain and soreness. It is nature’s way of telling us to relax and give our bodies time to get back on track. But what happens to the brain- body connection when we drink?

Alcohol is a neurotoxin. When we drink alcohol it enters the blood stream almost immediately and it can make it’s way to your brain within 5-10 minutes. One of the first impacts is to trigger the release of endorphins. This can cause drinkers to feel happier and more relaxed than before they drank and it is also part of the addictive quality of alcohol. 

Once alcohol has made it’s way to the brain its effects are far reaching, influencing a large portion of the brain. It does this by blocking a number of signals in the brain that lead to the classic behavioural changes that you see in someone who is under the influence; slurred speech , slowed reflexes, poor balance, poor memory and increased impulsive behaviour. The combination of these effects is that it can put athletes at increased risk of injury just like it could any other member of the public but an athlete after a game is already likely to have a diminished capacity through the level of whole body fatigue they are in. So combining fatigue and alcohol together is likely to exacerbate it’s effects.

Duration of Impact

Alcohol and performance and the damage it does can be prolonged. This is due to a number of reasons. As we have already discussed, alcohol is a depressant and although your physiological systems (heart rate, core temperature etc) will attempt to come back online as your body processes the drug your emotional centres in the brain that respond to the hormones serotonin and dopamine (hormones responsible for feeling happy) take a lot longer to recover after drinking. So in a reduced mood your motivation will dip, you are more likely to argue with people around you, more likely to feel anxious about the week ahead and be less able to cope with these emotions than you would in a healthy state.

Hangovers hurt. They give you a head ache, increase the acid in your stomach that can cause you to feel nauseous, alcohol also causes you to have a low blood sugar so you feel hungry all the time – and more than likely you’ll be feeling hungry for the fatty, sugary, salty foods that really aren’t good for you at the best of times, let alone when you’re body is trying to go through a process of repair.

If you drink to the level you have a severe hangover you are very unlikely to be motivated enough to go through the recovery process that you know to be beneficial to you. And due the physiological and psychological impact of alcohol you’ll suffer from a lack of motivation, you’ll stay in bed and sleep longer during the day due to the disrupted night the one before, desperately trying to balance the sleep debt you’ve obtained. You’re likely to have an unproductive, under stimulated day and be less physically active and due to both of these things you are likely to have a second night of bad sleep leading into the start of a new week!

Alcohol, Performance and Recovery from Injury
Alcohol, Performance and Recovery from Injury

So should Rugby Players never drink alcohol?

In an injured state we would always advise against drinking any alcohol. Especially if you are wanting to get back on to the field as quickly as possible, like most athletes tend to do. In the case of a head injury or concussion alcohol is an absolute no no! It can have massively damaging impacts on the management and recovery from head injury.

There is some positive news for the un-injured athlete if you still choose to drink alcohol. If you are going to consume alcohol, a dose of 0.5g/kg of body weight is unlikely to have a negative impact on most aspects of your recovery. 

What does that equate to.

120kg Athlete = Minimal Impact Dose of 60g

100kg Athlete = Minimal Impact Dose of 50g

80kg Athlete = Minimal Impact dose of 40g

In the UK, 1 Unit of alcohol equates to 8g of alcohol so…

Pint of Lager (5%)2.8 Units22.4g Alcohol
Spirit 35ml (40%)1.3 Units10.4g Alcohol
Glass of Wine 175ml (13%)2.3 Units18.4g Alcohol


So you if you keep your drinking in moderation 1-2 pints, 2-3 small wines or 4-5 measures of spirit you can limit the negative impact of alcohol and performance as well as on your recovery. 

For optimal health our advice would be to avoid alcohol but it is a common part of our lives and hopefully after reading this information you will know more about it’s influence on your recovery & performance.

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