Beer at the Finish Line—Do or Don’t?

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Why Athletes Heart Beer

Do you love to chase a run with a couple of cold ones? Or hit the bar for a brewski after a pump sesh with your buds? You’d think that one healthy habit would lead to another, but it’s not true when it comes to booze. Last year, two studies revealed how exercise and alcohol tend to go hand in hand. Researchers found people who engage in more physical activity generally tend to consume more alcohol. On days when participants exercised more, they also drank more. There are a few theories as to why. Sports are social, and many teams celebrate victories and commiserate losses together. Alcohol and exercise overlap in terms of how they affect your brain—if you love the buzz of endorphins, maybe you’re more likely to enjoy the buzz from a beer. Both also soothe stress and anxiety. And alcohol as a reward may be what resonates the most—after a rough week, does anything sound better than a long run followed by a cold beer on a sunny deck?

Will Run for Craft Brews

Beer running clubs are nothing new. The infamous Hash House Harriers, the original “drinking club with a running problem,” dates back to 1938 and a crew of rowdy British colonials. Modern runners can barely remember a time when they weren’t handed a drink ticket at the finish line. But as the micro-brew scene has grown, so has the relationship with running. Craft brew races are now sweeping the country, from Boston to Boulder to both Portlands. Races are sponsored by beer companies, with runners spilling over into afternoon and evening beer festivals. And there’s a fun-seeking fitness community of mud runners, obstacle lovers, and 5k friends that tend to draw a heavy-drinking crowd.

What Athletes are Drinking: Protein Brews?

It was only a matter of time before the emergence of protein brews. Yes, gluten-free and protein-enriched beers do exist. These are the suds that paleo dreams are made of, although they’re questionable in nutrition claims and taste. A couple have had false starts—Barbell Brew boasted “as much protein as a steak!” and Brewtein had an ultimately unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. But others show promise.

Mighty Squirrel is the first protein-enriched beer to make it onto shelves. “This isn’t meant to be a protein shake,” says co-founder Henry Manice. “We just wanted a few less empty calories.” While he’s careful not to make any crazy health claims, it’s clear his products, offering a modest 4 grams of protein per bottle, are aimed at those who lead a fit and active lifestyle. Regular beer contains 1 or 2 grams of protein just from the grains, but Mighty Squirrel is upping that number with soluble whey protein, and has also tested a meatier 20 grams, a batch affectionately called “fat squirrels.” But to start, Manice just wanted a better way to celebrate a sweet tennis match with friends. “First and foremost, it’s a great tasting beer—something we would rather drink, after a run or workout,” says Manice.

Beer at the Finish Line

But what actually happens to your body when you refuel with alcohol instead of water? Before you hand over your bib for a red cup (or two), Jim White, registered dietitian, trainer, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • You’ll get some carbs. “Yeast, barley, and malt do offer carbs. They’re not as good as a bar, banana, or a handful of pretzels, but sure, beer counts.”
  • Beer will dehydrate you. “Beer is going to give you some recovery and fuel, thanks to the carbs, but it’s never going to replace a sports drink or water. Alcohol is technically 90 percent water, however, it’s definitely a diuretic and a dehydrator.”
  • But no protein. Traditional beer isn’t giving you anything in terms of muscle recovery. And White is skeptical of protein brews, at least as a recovery food. “Milk is way lower in calories and higher in protein than any beer. Chocolate milk is popular right now, because it has the right combo of carbs and protein, and you’ll feel better for it tomorrow.”

Right after a race or a tough competition, White recommends drinking at least 16 ounces of water before raising your first beer. After that, alternate drinks, with one alcohol to two water. He also points out that there are a variety of other factors to consider before lifting your glass: How well you hydrated the day before, what kind of activity you’re doing, how long you exercised, and how hot the weather is. “It’s a unique science on every single person. This is definitely not one size fits all. Have a beer to celebrate, but make sure you recover first. If it’s a beautiful fall day and you cruised through a 5k, beer is not a big deal. But if it’s 90 degrees out and you just struggled through your first half marathon, make sure to take care of yourself first.”

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