Food & fluids

Alcohol and sport- Is it a good match for you?

The sound of clinking glasses and popping champagne corks is synonymous with celebrations of all description; socializing, relaxing and sharing friendships, a means of uniting people and a reward for efforts made.

Is it little wonder then that alcohol consumption has become an integral part of our sporting and social life?

Alcohol is big business

Globally, alcohol and sport is big business featuring heavily in television advertising and sponsorship deals with elite athletes, in codes such as tennis, cricket, rugby league, football, yachting and formula one, to name just a few.

Over the summer of 2014-15 New Zealand researchers found that television audiences, including children, watching a variety of sports were exposed to 1.6-3.8 alcohol brands per minute. Concern was expressed that growing up with ubiquitous alcohol advertising and sponsorship could lead children to assume that alcohol was part of being a sporting hero and a good New Zealander.1

The pressures of elite sport

Athletes are under a lot of pressure from sponsors, coaches, family and fans to perform well.
While athletes from different codes may have different motivators to drink alcohol, research has found that athletes often drink to feel good, to team bond but also, crucially, to help them to cope better with any negative feelings of failing performance on field.2

When used responsibly alcohol can help to relieve such tensions and to build an athletes feelings of inclusiveness in a team.

However this response is part of a U-shaped curve that affects everyone. Whether you are at the professional, ‘developing athlete’ or just ‘keeping fit’ end of the exercise spectrum, as alcohol intake increases, training efforts begin to unravel.

The ultimate impact on mental and physical performance at all exercise levels depends on how much you drink and the frequency of alcohol exposure. Ultimately alcohol in excess can shorten your life and athletic career.

How much is too much?

Alcohol tolerance varies

Most alcohols are poisonous to humans but the version we drink, ethyl alcohol, can be tolerated in small amounts depending on our age, body weight, state of health and the percentage of alcohol in the drink i.e Beer 2-5%; Wine12.5%; Spirits 40%.3

Generally people metabolise around three-quarters of a standard drink per hour so sobering up takes time. While alcohol absorption can be slowed by food, there is no mechanism that can speed up the rate of alcohol metabolism.

Smaller people such as women and children have smaller livers, less total body water to distribute the alcohol and less alcohol dehydrogenase to metabolise ethanol. They therefore have a lower tolerance to alcohol than men as do senior athletes and pregnant and breast-feeding women.

Alcohol is a drug

With 7 kilocalories per ml alcohol is both a nutrient and a drug. If taken with other drugs (such as antihistamines, sleeping pills, painkillers or illegal drugs), the effects are multiplied, unpredictable and very dangerous for some people.3 Learn more

Standard serving sizes of alcoholic beverages

Alcohol is measured in units. 1unit = 10g pure alcohol 3,4


  • 330 ml can of beer @ 4% alcohol = 1 standard drink
  • 100 ml glass of table wine @ 12.5% alcohol = 1 standard drink
  • 335 ml bottle of RTD spirits @ 8% alcohol = 2.1 standard drinks
  • 750 ml bottle of wine @ 13% alcohol = 7.7 standard drinks
  • 1000 ml bottle of spirits @ 47% alcohol = 37 standard drinks
  • 3 litre cask of wine @ 12.5% alcohol = 30 standard drinks

Have you ever measured out 100mls of wine?
Trying this using different sized glasses can be very educational as very few glasses these days are poured in this one unit size. Portion studies have found that the bigger the gap between the top of the wine and the top of the glass the more people feel deprived and want more. So if you are keen to control your alcohol then start using a smaller glass.

For responsible drinking the NZ Ministry of Health recommends that the following guidelines be observed for the general adult population.4

Recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption

Frequency Men Women
Daily <3* <2*
Weekly <15 <10
On any one event 5 4
Pregnant and breast feeding are advised against drinking any alcohol
Teenagers <15 years zero intake
* Try to have at least one alcohol free day per week

These MOH recommendations may yet be lowered following recent research on drink driving and the effects of alcohol on longevity.

Alcohol affects body functions that are vital for sporting success and good health.

When we drink alcohol it mostly passes into the blood stream via the stomach unchanged. The circulation system distributes alcohol to every part of the body. Alcohol starts to slow down the operation of different types of cells.

This causes the different stages of intoxication mentioned earlier as a U- shaped curve. Initial positive feelings of relaxation, laughter may soon be replaced by slurred speech, loss of balance, impaired judgment and co-ordination.

Brain fade

As alcohol intake increases it impairs reaction times and decision-making processes, it diminishes hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor control. It also reduces accuracy, balance and reflex responses. Complex co-ordination is compromised and mood can become depressed causing headache and hypersensitivity.5,6

In excess alcohol also causes tremors, dementia and nerve damage over time. In young people under 25 years alcohol can affect brain development.

Teenagers under 15 years are particularly at risk because the pre-frontal cortex in their brains has yet to fully develop, so they therefore lack emotional maturity, self-image and judgement to manage their drinking. 3

Gut health declines

Alcohol can alter the growth of gut bacteria causing inflammation in the stomach (gastritis) and bleeding in the gut; leaky gut syndrome and loss of healthy gut bacteria important for building our immune system.7

Reduced fertility

Alcohol lowers blood sugar levels, reducing sexual drive and fertility in men and women.
Breast cancer and other gynecological problems have also been found to be a greater risk factor amongst women who drink than non-drinkers.3

There is no safe alcohol level during pregnancy as exposure to alcohol can lead to birth defects, developmental delays, cognitive, social, emotional and behavioural deficits in the child. 3, 7

In excess alcohol also reduces testosterone levels in men, lowering sperm count and fertility and increasing their risk of developing prostate cancer.9

Changes in energy utilisation

Alcohol impairs aerobic metabolism causing an increase in lactate formation leading to muscular pain and reduced performance. The dehydrating effects of alcohol on the body, lowers muscle glycogen and blood glucose levels. All of which can lead to a decrease in power, strength, speed, local muscle endurance and cardiovascular endurance 3

Reduced liver function

The liver is a vital organ for athletes as it filters our blood, makes and stores glycogen (as a back up source of energy) and produces bile to help the breakdown of dietary fat.

Around 91 percent of alcohol is metabolised in the liver. Excess alcohol loads over time changes liver function and it becomes fattier. This can lead to high blood cholesterol levels, weight gain, hepatitis, cirrhosis and eventual liver failure.3

Changes in fluid balance

Alcohol increases dehydration by flushing out more fluid and electrolytes than are taken in. This can be detrimental to athletes as it can slow recovery time following exercise.10 Excessive intakes of alcohol can also lead on to recurrent urinary tract infections 11

Loss of muscle bulk

While alcohol is often consumed straight after a game of sport this should not be the first choice of fluids for post exercise recovery because alcohol slows the reloading of muscle glycogen which can reduce physical performance the following day.3

Alcohol can also reduce circulating levels of testosterone and slows muscle protein synthesis all of which reduces muscle bulk. In addition alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns and growth hormone which are both important for muscle development particularly in developing athletes.12

Loss of temperature regulation

Alcohol can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. In hot climates alcohol accelerates dehydration thereby inhibiting the body’s ability to transfer heat to the skin through sweat. As the core temperature of the body rises, exercise is impaired and life is endangered.

Of relevance to skiers and snowboarders, in cold conditions alcohol can affect the thermoregulatory centre located in the hypothalamus of the brain that conserves heat. In addition the dehydrating effect of alcohol can increase respiratory losses, particularly at high altitude. 13

Changes in circulation

Alcohol can temporarily weaken left ventricular contraction of the heart as the alcohol dose and level of exercise increases.14 Binge drinking is also associated with raised blood pressure and triglyceride levels, raising cholesterol, damaging heart muscle and increasing the risk of stroke. 3

Loss of bone density

Achieving strong bone density is an important issue for female athletes and is dependent on good oestrogen and dietary calcium levels. Unfortunately alcohol increases calcium losses from the body.

Oestrogen levels can also be lower if athletes have restricted their energy levels, or are overtraining in order to lose weight. These things can lead to a loss of monthly periods (athletic amenorrhea).

Athletes who avoid milk products because they are vegan or mistakenly believe dairy products promote weight gain may lack vital calcium and vitamin D important for bone health. These things if combined with high alcohol intake can lead to stress fractures and reduced bone density.13

Slower healing times

If an athlete has sustained an injury or excessive bruising during a match or training session they should avoid drinking alcohol for at least 24 hours. This is because alcohol has a vasodilating effect and can have an impact on tissue damage by causing extra swelling and bleeding which may delay recovery and actually increase the extent of injury. 13

Weight management issues

With 7 kilocalories per ml/gm alcohol contributes to energy intake and is used as an immediate energy source. This results in energy from foods consumed at the same time being stored, usually as fat around the abdomen. Alcohol can also displace essential nutrients from the diet leading to malnutrition 3

Alcohol and health

Heart health

While it was once believed that in small amounts alcohol could aid cardio-vascular health when coupled with other dietary changes such as the Mediterranean diet(more fish, fruit and vegetables, oil, olives and low fat dairy products) the high level of alcohol consumption seen today is challenging these perceived benefits.

Weight gain and diabetes

As alcohol consumption increases, fat accumulates around the stomach and abdominal region. This fat is known as visceral fat and it alters sugar and fat metabolism causing weight gain and increasing the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Shorter life

Recent research reported in the Lancet looking at 599,912 drinkers in 19 different countries has found that alcohol consumption is associated with a greater risk of developing stroke, heart failure, fatal heart disease and aortic aneurysm.15

The researchers found that the lowest risk for drinking was 100g/week or just 10 standard units. Drinking more lead people to die earlier. E.g. someone aged 40 years who drank 10-20 units/week knocked 6 months off their life while a drinker consuming 35 standard units/week took 4-5 years off their life

Alcohol heightens risk taking behaviour

Distortions of time

Alcohol diminishes cognitive function and slows time perception for up to 24 hours meaning that athletes may think they have more time to complete actions than they actually have and this can lead to accidents. 16 Athletes involved in sports that involve machinery such as car and bike racing should avoid alcohol and be aware of our new transport liquor laws. Learn more

These came into effect on December 2014 lowering the breath alcohol limit for adult drivers from 400 micrograms (mcg) of alcohol per litre of breath, to 250mcg. The blood alcohol limit has reduced from 80mcg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, to 50mcg. 17

Sadly in 2016 alcohol and drugs were a contributing factor in 31 percent of urban fatal crashes and 28 percent of open road fatal crashes. For every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers or riders who died in road crashes, 37 of their passengers and 19 sober road users died with them. 1

Reduced inhibitions

Alcohol can act as a stimulant, reducing anxiety and increasing self-confidence. While this may reduce pain sensitivity and psychological barriers in sports such as speed skating, gymnastics or skiing this can also lead on to unnecessary risk taking that may cause harm and ruin sporting careers. 16

Anti-social behaviour

In recent years the level of after match drinking behaviour has escalated and athletes caught up in risk taking, binge drinking and alcohol fueled incidents has attracted ‘bad press’.

Not only can this sort of behaviour ruin an athletes career when advertising and sponsorship deals fold, but it also brings dishonour to their team mates and sporting code.

As standards of conduct and behaviours are learned, impressionable young members may come to believe that such behaviour is part of the team culture and therefore condoned.

Building a safe team drinking culture

The challenge to coaches and sports team managers is to set standards of conduct regarding alcohol and team drinking. This should be accompanied by education programmes for players at all levels of competition, that address the effects of alcohol on the body and guidelines for responsible drinking and ways to minimise the detrimental effects of alcohol on health and performance.

In order to build a supportive team culture that respects individual effort and clean sport, this alcohol policy needs to be reinforced by team management, coaches, athletes and parents alike.

If you are keen to discuss your own drinking habits or that of your sports team then contact us for guidelines, practical solutions and support.

Resources that may be of help:


1, Chamber,T. Signal, L. Carter, MA. McConville, S. Wong,R. Zhu,W. Alcohol sponsorship of a summer of sport: a frequency analysis of alcohol marketing during major sport events on New Zealand television. NZ Med. J. 13 Jan 2017 130 (1448).

2. Luck,M. Dickson, G. Naylor M. Sport related drinking movies of professional rugby league and rugby union players. NZ Journal of Sports Med. 2017 44(2):56-59

3. NZ Ministry of Health Alcohol 

4. Alcohol and serving size

5. Alcohol and medications       

6.  Reiken, G.B, 1991, Negative effects of alcohol on physical fitness and athletic performance.  Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 62(8): 64-66

7.  Engen, PA. Green,SJ. Voigt,RM. Forsyth,CB. Keshavarzian, A. The Gastrointestinal Microbiome: Alcohol Effects on the Composition of Intestinal Microbiota. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):223-3

8. Alcohol and pregnancy 

9   Jinhui, Z. Stockwell, T. Roemer, A. Chikritzhs TIs alcohol consumption a risk factor for  prostate cancer? A systematic review and meta–analysis BMC Cancer 201616:845

10.  Shirreffs SM, Maughan RJ. Restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption. J Appl Physiol 1997; 83: 1152–8.

11. Suh, B. Shin,DW. Hwang,SS. Choi, HC. Kwon,H. Cho,B. Park,JH. Alcohol Is Longitudinally Associated with Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms Partially Via High‐Density Lipoprotein. J.Urol 2012 April,187 (4):1312-7

12   Parr,EB. Camera,DM. Areta,JL. Burke,LM. Phillips, SM. Hawley,JA. Coffey, VG. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLos 2014 Feb 12;9(2):e88384.

13. Burke LM. The Complete Guide to Food for Sports Performance, 2nd edn. Maryborough, Vic: Australian Print    Group, 1995.

14     Li,Z . Guo, X. Bai,Y. Sun,G. Guan,Y. Sun,Y. RoselleAM. The association between alcohol consumption and left ventricular ejection fraction. An observational study on a general population. Medicine (Baltimore) 2016 May;95 (21):e3763

15     Conner,J. Hall W. Thresholds for safer alcohol use might need lowering. The Lancet 391 (10129):1460-1461 April 14 2018

16. Position of NZ Dietetic Assoc (Inc): Nutrition for exercise and Sport in NZ Nutrition & Dietetics 2008; 65 (Suppl. 4): A70–A80 Journal compilation © 2008 Dietitians Association of Australia

17    Alcohol and drugs 2017 NZ Ministry of transport

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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