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With Christmas just around the corner, how much can alcohol can hurt your hard-won fitness gains?

The silly season is upon us and with it comes plenty of opportunities to derail our healthy eating and exercise habits. There are the long lunches and after-work drinks that force you to forgo your evening gym sessions. There are parties that extend into the wee hours which although thoroughly enjoyable tend to write off any plans you had to eat healthily and exercise the next day.

You might already have an inkling that alcohol and exercise don’t make great workout partners. But how exactly can a few drinks affect your fitness routine?

Impaired performance

Countless academic papers point out why elite athletes don’t drink alcohol on a regular basis. One article published in the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health in 2014 concluded that alcohol severely reduced speed, energy and stamina, and slowed reaction time.

Jordan McCreary, a personal trainer and director of 12 Sydney F45 gyms and founder of Activate Health Clinics, says studies have shown alcohol can reduce maximum sprint speed among athletes by up to 30 per cent. Although he does point out that the effect of drinking is less devastating for average joes trying to get fit. He explains that the worst of the hurdles relates to dehydration. The more you drink, the more dehydrated you will become, and the more your next workout will suffer.

“Alcohol is a diuretic that dehydrates us for many hours and even days after a drinking session,” says McCreary. “If you work out while hungover and you’re dehydrated, your body can’t carry enough oxygen to your muscles. You’re likely to get cramps and you will overheat and fatigue faster. Your reaction time will also be substantially slower, so you’re more at risk of injuring yourself.”

Muscle loss

A West Virginia University School of Medicine study published in 2014 found that athletes who knocked back a few drinks after working out had much lower rates of protein synthesis than those who didn’t drink alcohol.

Protein synthesis is the process your body uses to rebuild miniature tears in your muscles after a heavy lifting session. It is the reason your muscles grow stronger and larger. But if you drink alcohol after a workout, any “gains” you were hoping for will be severely reduced by up to a third, according to the study.

“Don’t go straight from the barbell to the bar. Instead, eat something, drink water and wait a few hours if you do decide to party on. And prepare to be extra sore the next day.”

F45 Director and founder of Activate Health Clinics

Weight gain

Carbohydrates and protein have about 17 kilojoules per gram, according to Nutrition Australia, whereas alcohol has more than double that at 29 kilojoules per gram. These are considered “empty kilojoules” because alcohol has none of the essential nutrients that our body needs to function. Unfortunately, party drinks such as beers and cocktails can quickly add up empty kilojoules to dismantle your otherwise-healthy daily intake.

“If you are maintaining a healthy weight with your current food intake, and suddenly add a few beers to your day on a regular basis, you’re going to gain weight,” says McCreary.

But even McCreary admits it would take a Christmas miracle to avoid alcohol altogether in December. He says you can still enjoy a few drinks if you stick to some rules for balance.

“Have a glass of water with each drink, and choose lighter, protein-rich options for dinner,” says McCreary. “Exercise before and after the party but be mindful of the intensity and your ability. And stop drinking a couple of hours before bed, to give your body some time to process the alcohol.”