| | | Sobriety: Trading The Buzz for The Pump

Author / John Durrett

7 - 15 minutes read

I just had my annual physical exam with my Doctor, and when she asked about alcohol consumption, I told her I had been sober for just over a year. She raised her eyebrows and asked why I had made that choice. Was drinking problematic for me? Yeah, it was! It was killing my gains!

For a lot of people, alcohol consumption can be a real health issue. I’m happy to say that this was not the case for me. Just like anyone, I have had nights where I over-indulged for sure, but I wasn’t facing any serious life consequences based on my drinking. So, why did I choose sobriety?

Quite simply, I was sick of the trade-offs that I was making. As I’ve entered my mid-thirties, I’ve been really trying to tighten the slack on my diet and lifestyle choices. Sleep and nutrition have become increasingly larger focuses for me, with recovery taking one of the biggest priority spots in my approach to fitness and performance. I’ve been working to keep a lower body weight, less body fat, while keeping my lean mass high. Additionally, as workout time can be more and more scarce, I wanted to make sure that I was getting the most out of every training session. Alcohol was undercutting my efforts in all of these areas in several important ways.

First of all, the most obvious issue: liquid calories. You may have grown up as I did, hearing beer jokingly referred to as “liquid bread” by adults. That is almost precisely what it is, and while we would look a little quizzically at someone pounding down half a loaf of bread, 2 or 3 beers can be consumed quite easily in an evening. These calories add up quickly, and as many of you may also find, when I have a few drinks I lose a bit of inhibition and it can be much easier for me to do the mental gymnastics to justify eating an entire pizza or a couple baskets of wings. One good drink invites another, and that good drink often invites more food… and no one’s ordering a salad to go with their beers.

Next, let’s talk about inflammation. This definitely isn’t my area of expertise, but I can tell you anecdotally that when I drink, my body aches the next day. I’m stiffer, in my muscles and my joints, and movement just doesn’t feel great. As is the theme of this article, I started to look at the trade-offs. Was the enjoyment I got out of the drinks I had the day before worth how bad I was feeling the next day? As I’ve gotten older, the answer has more often than not turned to a resounding “nope”. In perhaps the worst twist of all, I’ve found that the healthier I am, the harder these effects hit me. More often than not, it just wasn’t worth it.

Workouts can be harder to fit in as we get older, largely because we have more responsibilities. Luckily, Power Athlete has several programs that help eliminate this excuse, including the flexible programming of Grindstone and Lean & Able, which both build around just two Mandatory Days of training a week with 3 Optional Days that can be added on at your convenience. Even with excellent programming that works around busy schedules, we still want to be able to give it our all in the gym. I found that on days when I drank, my sleep was negatively impacted, no matter when I had that drink, or how small it was. A bad night’s sleep will certainly pull away from your ability to train hard the next day, but it also hurts your ability to recover from the training day before. This meant that when I was drinking, I was messing up two days of training. Poor sleep also hurts our ability to stay lean, as we burn many of our daily calories during sleep. There are several other ways that poor sleep hinders us (low testosterone, inflammatory responses, lack of coordination etc.) that aren’t in the scope of this article, but you can check the footnotes for just a few of the many times that we’ve addressed sleep on the podcast and the blog. In my head, the math just didn’t work out, and this was another big factor for me changing my ways.

What about the social aspect of drinking? I go to a lot of seminars and networking events, and I’ve found over the last few years that the pressure to drink has plummeted, but I’ve got a few tricks I’ll employ. One is to get a diet soda, which looks to any casual observer as though it could be a mixed drink, or a soda water with a splash of fruit juice. Even soda water with a lime on the rim can masquerade as a stronger beverage and won’t have you dealing with too many questions. I used to drink as a social lubricant, but since making this decision, I’ve learned how to be more sociable by being a better conversationalist. This has caused me to pursue educational resources that have helped me become a better listener and helped me deepen my speaking skills as well, which has been a benefit in other areas of my life as well.

Another point I wanted to touch on was the idea of alcohol “to unwind”. This was another big reason I would drink. Oftentimes this took the form of a glass of good whiskey on a Friday or Saturday evening. It certainly seemed like it was helping me to relax, but was that the case? Again, I’m not a professional in this realm of the health field but hear me out: alcohol consumption increases our resting heart rate and decreases our heart rate variability, which are both signs of acute stress on our system. Both of these signs have been shown to be statistically significant after even one drink. The “relaxed” feeling of alcohol largely comes from its properties as a depressant, not from what it’s doing to decrease actual stress. When I worked this into my equation, I started to seek out different ways to manage my stress. Meditation and breathwork works sometimes, but I’ve also really started to enjoy journaling and reading for fun, especially fictional work. I’ve been throwing on some headphones and listening to new genres of music or diving deeper into tracks from artists that I really dig. I’ve taken up some fun and diverse hobbies, most recently archery, that allow me to deep dive into something that rewards me for being relaxed and focused. Anecdotally, I’ve found that these pursuits actually decrease my heart rate and increase my heart rate variability, both sure signs that my body is actually experiencing a relaxed state. While these methods aren’t always as easy as pouring myself a drink, I’ve found they have a way bigger positive impact on performance and recovery without any negative side effects. Additionally, to bring this full circle, I’ve noticed that as my recovery and sleep improve, I feel less stressed overall and need to de-stress less often.

Now, let’s talk about trade-offs. Will I never drink again? That’s super unlikely. However, my relationship with alcohol has radically changed, and my view of what is being brought into that trade-off has shifted as well. I work so hard on my training, giving it my all. I weigh and measure my food. I bought a top-of-the-line mattress, special pillow, black out curtains and ear plugs to improve my sleep. Was a drink or two really worth sabotaging all of that work that I was doing each day? It depends! If a buddy of mine is moving out of the country and wants to share one last drink, producing a bottle of one of my favorite bourbons, I’m having some. If my wife and I go out for sushi on a cold winter night, we may share some hot sake. My state produces some of the best cider I’ve ever had, and if there’s a tasting event going on in town, I’m not going to say I’ll never attend again. If I’m delivering the toast at a wedding, I’m likely going up there with a glass of champagne. 

My days of having more than one drink a night are almost certainly over. This experiment has really changed the way I view alcohol, and I see it now as a thing to be enjoyed and cherished very infrequently. I’d rather have a very small amount of some very top end hooch than throw back several beers. If you really enjoy the beer scene, as many of my close friends do, or if you have a real love for the flavors of alcohol, I wouldn’t say that it’s a good idea to stop forever, but consider making it a special occasion, once a month instead of every Friday night.

I don’t want to stand here at the pulpit and tell you to throw out all the booze in your home. Far from it. However, in the interest of performance and our goal here at Power Athlete of seeking out every possible way to improve, I’d love to give you a little challenge: take one month, ditch the booze, and focus on your sleep, nutrition, and performance. It would be a super smart move to hit up one of our Nutrition Coaches to make sure that you’re doing this in the most effective way possible: NUTRITION COACHING. Give it 30 days and then you can do what I did and weigh the trade-off, picking the best well-informed option that suits your pursuits, goals, and lifestyle. My two cents: if you’re going to Be The Hammer, be the baddest hammer you can be.

Related Content

Training: Program Selector Tool

Nutrition: 1-on-1 Coaching

Podcast: Ep 682 – Sleep Habits & Hormones w/ Dr. Kirk Parsley

Blog: Nerding Out on Alcohol – Dr. Hunter Waldman

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John Durrett

John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.

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