Why Knocking Back a Few Beers Won’t Derail Your Strength and Fitness Gains

 

The night before setting off on their hundred-mile ultramarathons through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, the Tarahumara people, the greatest distance runners in the world, prepare not with monkish abstemiousness but Dionysian abandon, purging themselves of their “secret lusts and desires” by pounding tequila made from rattlesnake corpses and a nutrient-packed corn beer called tesgüino. Then, according to Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-seller, Born to Run, they sleep with one another’s spouses and wrestle half-naked in the dirt. When they awake the next day, purified and hung over, they run.

Nine hundred miles to their north, along the Colorado Front Range, the Tarahumara have a kindred spirit in yet another unique tribe committed to the oft-intertwined joys of imbibition and exertion—though, admittedly, without the swinging and wrestling bouts.

They’re the employees of New Belgium Brewing Company, the fourth-largest craft beer maker in the U.S.—guys like Shawn Hines, New Belgium’s 44-year-old “Pharaoh of Phlow” and a competitive distance runner. Before Hines goes for one of his regular evening trail runs, he first steels himself with two pints of a session IPA or a Czech-style pilsner, a carefully calibrated quantity that gives him a buzz that, he claims, enhances rather than impairs.  

“It creates a nice headspace,” he says. “It’s a little carbo-loading.” When Hines gets home, he takes off his headlamp, gives his wife a kiss, and reaches for a recovery beer—something maltier and bolder, “with a little more teeth.” The guy’s nothing if not consistent: The evening before one of his 50-mile ultramarathons, he drinks beer. The moment he finishes one of his 50-mile ultramarathons, he drinks beer. Even during his 50-mile ultramarathons, he drinks beer.

“When I used to do bike racing, they’d give you a water bottle that was half water and half flat Coke,” Hines explains. “I was like, ‘I don’t like Coke, but I like beer.’ ” Now, a couple of times during a race, Hines will reach for an eight-ounce squirt bottle filled with a slurry of water and black lager. “Midway through a race, it’s so awesome and uplifting,” he says. “I don’t know if it gives me any kind of a boost from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint, there’s something satisfying about saying, ‘I’m having a beer right now.’ It’s like a shot of Prozac right to the frontal lobe.”

Hines may drink a lot of beer, but he’s hardly chugging to the level of a Tarahumarian hangover. He seldom drinks more than three beers a day, and his nightly intake is spread over many hours. He doesn’t look like a Joe Six-Pack, either—unless you’re talking about his abs. During race season he’s a muscular 147 pounds coiled around a 5’9″ frame, with a mere 11% body fat. His tattooed arms look like they’re forged from iron. If you happen to meet him in a dive bar along Cameron Pass in the Rockies, you may, at first glance, assume he’s not only an ultramarathoner but also a Navy SEAL between tours.

In reality, Hines has a day job that’s much more fun. As Pharaoh of Phlow, he’s New Belgium’s events coordinator. Wherever the brewery is shilling its products, such as Fat Tire amber ale or Blue Paddle pilsner, Hines is likely to be there, setting up makeshift bars, pouring pints, and spreading the gospel of New Belgium. When I first hear about him, it makes sense to me that one of the company’s public faces would be some ripped, superhealthy guy. But when I learn that Hines isn’t an outlier—that he’s one of several hyperfit, beer-evangelizing jocks working there—I begin to wonder if these guys, from their magical perch in the Rockies, have solved one of the most unsolvable riddles in fitness, unlocking a secret that men the world over are all dying to know: Can you really be fit and be a regular beer drinker? Is it possible to indulge in your favorite lager after—or even during—a crazy workout and not erase all your hard- earned gains (as so much science has led us to believe)? And are there beers that are more “ab-friendly,” while others should be avoided like a deep-dish pizza?

With those questions (and more) in mind, I decide to pack my best outdoor workout gear—and a sizable bottle of Advil—and set off to find out for myself.

Beer bellies need not apply

When I arrive at New Belgium, in Fort Collins, CO, it’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the temperature outside is 21°, and plumes of steam rise off the giant chrome tanks outside. But inside, I find nine New Belgium employees sweating as if they were in the tropics as they throw themselves into mountain climbers, back rows, and hop kicks as part of a ski-conditioning class. A few hours later, I walk through a cavernous warehouse where New Belgium ages its sour beers to find, tucked into a corner, the “prison gym,” a weight room surrounded by a chain-link fence, where employees squat plated barbells and rip off pullups on rock-climbing grips. Outside, on the brewery’s 50-acre property, I walk a cyclocross track where some 300 competitors gather on spring and fall evenings to go all-out across the course’s mounds, ravines, and jagged wooden obstacles.

I don’t find many beer bellies at New Belgium. Instead, I meet lots of people who preach about the uniqueness of “the culture.” New Belgium is 100% employee-owned, and everyone I meet there seems highly motivated to bust their asses all day long—whether that involves cleaning out a mash tun, Excel-jockeying a sales forecast, or, like Hines, promoting the product.

But New Belgium’s employees also clearly relish the fruits of their labors—and have ample chances to do so. Every day, employees pile into the tasting room at 4:30 p.m. for a complimentary “shifty.” And, at the end of every week, each employee heads home with a free 12-pack. That “culture” also means lots and lots of fitness. The New Belgium bike racks are full, and often those shifties segue into 20-mile group rides. A typical weekend for the most active New Belgium employees ends with inputting their race times and personal bests into a companywide fitness database. And, while New Belgium doesn’t go out of its way to hire impressively credentialed athletes, it has amassed more than its fair share.

When I arrive, I talk with Ryan Van Fleet, a slim marathoner and triathlete who has run the 7,800-foot Pikes Peak Ascent, and Mike Woodard, a state-champion cyclist who’s ridden 52,000 miles over the past six years. Later, on the phone, I catch up with Brendan Beers, an appropriately named veteran marathoner, and Jay Richardson, a nine-time Ironman and current CrossFit competitor, both of whom work at New Belgium’s new Asheville, NC, branch. There are many others, such as Aaron “the Professor” LaVanchy, who fills his time with multiday high-elevation rides and backcountry skiing expeditions. A few years back, in fact, Hines, Van Fleet, Beers, and Richardson competed in a 24-hour ultramarathon relay, a 200-mile race from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs that would test even an Olympian’s mental and physical endurance. The New Belgium team won, averaging a 8:24-mile pace. No one would have guessed these guys worked in a brewery. They didn’t have ample beards or jaundiced pallors or even a trace of belly. No, they might as well have been a bunch of gringo Tarahumara.

Naturally, they celebrated their victory with cases of beer.

Hey, Arnold knocked back pitchers too

Of course, mixing booze and fitness is anything but new. Hippocrates supposedly counseled his Ancient Greek Olympian patients to “get drunk once or twice” to cure their sore muscles, and Olympic marathoner Thomas Hicks, who won gold at the 1904 games, drank a mixture of brandy, rat poison, and egg whites to numb the pain of running. In 1938, a group of British colonial officers stationed in Kuala Lumpur began a Monday evening running club known as the Hash House Harriers, whose stated objectives were a) “to promote physical fitness among its members,” b) “to get rid of weekend hang- overs,” c) “to acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it with beer,” and d) “to persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel.” The Harriers, whose members often refer to their group as a “drinking club with a running problem,” have continued to this day. They now have 2,000 worldwide chapters and some 70,000 members.

But it’s not just the Harriers. Ever done a Tough Mudder? Then you probably enjoyed the keg party afterward. Ever try CrossFit? No doubt the faithful invited you for a post-box pint. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger used to recover from the gym with a pitcher of beer (along with an entire roast chicken). And studies have consistently shown he’s no aberration: One nationwide survey found that heavy drinkers exercised about 10 minutes more per week than moderate drinkers—who, in turn, exercised 10 minutes more per week than teetotalers. In other words, if you’re serious about your workouts, there’s a good chance you’re also serious about your lagers and ales.

But therein lies the rub. As every fit guy knows, if you whisper the word “beer” to a card-carrying nutritionist, he’ll shriek, “Empty calories!” And no matter how much we all love it, beer has a fairly poor reputation among those who focus on strength gains, personal bests, and optimizing peak performance. At first glance, the case against beer seems practically open-shut.

Alcohol is a diuretic, so beer dehydrates you. It depletes your glucose levels, stripping your muscles of power, and inhibits an enzyme that fuels recovery in your fast-twitch anaerobic fibers. Contrary to what guys like Hines would have you believe, the buzz from beer doesn’t give an athlete any performance boost. (Depending on the quantity, it’ll do the exact opposite.) Beer isn’t even a particularly good source of post-workout carbohydrates (a can has only about 12 grams of carbs), which is supposed to be its saving grace. Beer “has been seen as a good source of many nutrients and has sometimes been used in preparation for endurance events or to replenish nutrients following competition,” the American College of Sports Medicine’s current comment on “Alcohol and Athletic Performance” reads. “Actually, orange juice supplies four times the potassium plus almost three times the carbohydrates, and it would take 11 beers to obtain the B-vitamin recommended daily allowance.”

Ouch. But is that the whole story?

The case for the post-workout “recovery” beer

Over the past two decades, researchers have consistently come to two contradictory conclusions about beer: First, drinking lots of alcohol after working out can significantly hamper the body’s ability to recover, especially when it isn’t supplemented with food and water. Second, drinking a small or moderate amount of alcohol after working out—especially with a meal—does not significantly hamper the body’s ability to recover, and, some claim, may even have benefits.

Take one much-cited study in which researchers in Australia found that test subjects who consumed alcohol after working out reduced their myofibrillar protein synthesis by nearly 40%. The results led to headlines like “The Truth About the Post-Workout Beer” (it wasn’t good) and “If You Booze After Exercise, Your Muscles Lose.” But the study’s subjects weren’t just drinking—they were getting hammered, guzzling six screwdrivers during a four-hour period following a high-intensity workout of cycling and weight training. If you binge-drink screwdrivers after working out, consider yourself warned.

And consider the 2012 doctoral thesis of New Zealand physiologist Matthew Barnes, Ph.D., perhaps the world’s leading expert on the recovery beer, which, upon a quick glance, seems to be very bad news for the likes of Shawn Hines. In the paper’s abstract, Barnes writes that “the findings presented in this thesis provide evidence that the consumption of alcohol, even at volumes considerably less than those regularly consumed by sportspeople, has deleterious effects on muscle function when consumed soon after strenuous eccentric exercise.” There doesn’t seem to be a lot of wiggle room there.

But that conclusion was only one of many that Barnes came to in his years of research. When I contact him to learn more, he tells me he’s far from an anti-beer scold. When Barnes has studied the effects of drinking alcohol after normal exercise—resistance training and rugby games—he hasn’t found very many “deleterious effects.” In fact, he’s found that post-workout alcohol consumption has no impact on hormone responses, hydration status, or athletic-performance measures. “Personally, I believe that if normal post-exercise nutrition strategies—rehydration and food consumption—are adhered to prior to alcohol consumption, there may be no detrimental impact of consuming alcohol, even at quite a high dose,” Barnes tells me.

He isn’t saying it’s OK to go get shit-faced, though. The corrosive long-term effects of excessive alcohol consumption should be familiar to everyone, and his “if normal post-exercise nutrition strategies are adhered to” caveat is a biggie. If you guzzle an entire growler before a post-workout meal, you’ll regret it. But his larger point stands: You can drink a beer, even a few, after a workout, and you’ll be just fine.

When I spoke with respected Spanish physiologist Manuel J. Castillo, M.D., Ph.D., who led a pioneering study on the suitability of beer as a recovery drink, he offers a similar perspective. An athlete, he says, should follow two simple rules: Limit yourself to two beers, and for every pound of body weight you lose during a workout, rehydrate with at least the same quantity of fluid (a pint for every pound). This means that if you’ve lost only about 1.5 pounds of fluid, two cans of beer will do the trick for rehydration—no water needed. But if you’ve lost more than that, you’re going to need to augment your 24 ounces of beer with water or another nonalcoholic beverage. (And, like Barnes, Castillo says that “it’s always better to ingest beer with food that contributes salt and other nutrients that beer doesn’t have.”)

So, beer, consumed in moderation, might not have adverse effects on post-workout recovery, but could it actually have positive qualities? Possibly. In the ancient world, physicians used beer-based concoctions (enhanced with herbs like wormwood or more outré additives like crushed earthworms) to fight everything from common coughs to poisonous asp bites. More recently, scientists have discovered that beer decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney stones, and—because it contains vitamin B, ferulic acid, and fiber—it may be a good prebiotic, too. And, according to one study, beer can work wonders for runners. In 2011, researchers in Germany monitored 277 healthy male runners of the Munich marathon, each of whom drank either one to 1.5 liters of beer or a placebo a day in the weeks surrounding the race. The beer drinkers experienced less inflammation, stronger immune systems, fewer colds, and a lower incidence of upper-respiratory infections—the result, the researchers speculated, of beer’s high polyphenol content. The catch? The beer was nonalcoholic.

The German study was, in fact, funded by Erdinger Weissbräu, one of Germany’s largest breweries and the producers of Erdinger Non-Alcoholic, a beverage the company has successfully marketed in Europe as a “refreshing isotonic recovery drink” that “replenishes the body with essential vitamins such as B9.” But there isn’t anything unique about the nutritional profile of Erdinger Non-Alcoholic, the company readily admits. It’s “brewed under the strict Bavarian Purity Law of 1516,” and any other wheat beer would contain the same essential nutrients.

But if you prefer good old-fashioned alcoholic beer, Lee Heidel, managing editor of the beer and fitness blog Brew/Drink/Run, suggests trying radlers, which are basically Teutonic shandies (a mix of beer and lemonade or fruit soda), and gose-style ales, which are relatively low in alcohol and, significantly, salty. (Studies have found that enriching beer with sodium makes it a better rehydration beverage.) But science is agnostic on the benefits of one style over another, so any beer that’s low in alcohol and crisp in taste will do. 

Perhaps the strangest news is that small amounts of beer might not even hinder your performance before or during a workout—at least not too much. When I ask Barnes what he thinks of Shawn Hines’ pre- and in-workout beers, he says it is “an interesting approach and one that probably won’t do much harm.” Because beer has more water and less alcohol than wine or liquor, it’s not a bad vehicle for rehydration, and while drinking a lot before or during an event is certain to reduce an athlete to a stumbling, slurring mess, “low doses,” like the black lager Hines drinks, will probably have no ill effects at all. (Of course, it won’t have any particular benefit, either.) “As long as it works for an individual, that’s all that really matters,” Barnes tells me.

Don’t overdo it, or it’s “lights out”

After touring New Belgium’s prison gym and cyclocross track, I get invited to engage in one of its employee-owners’ favorite pastimes: biking to get a happy-hour drink. Along with Hines, Woodard, and New Belgium’s PR director, Bryan Simpson (an avid cyclist himself ), I ride five miles of windy trail that runs along the Cache La Poudre River. My bike, a rusty old beach cruiser, turns the trip into a slog, but the scenery makes up for it as the snow-covered Rocky Mountain foothills glisten in front of us. Our destination, in the neighboring town of LaPorte, is the Swing Station—the “SS,” as it’s known—which caters to cyclists, decorates its walls with the skulls of cattle and rams, and stocks several beers on tap that tend toward the full-bodied, especially during winter.

As we sit down, Woodard begins to discuss some of his training strategies. A numbers-crunching sales and supply forecaster at the brewery, he approaches his off-hours cycling in much the same way: by amassing data. He tracks his wattage output during his rides. He saves the wrappers of every protein bar and gel he consumes so he can count the calories. Earlier, he even presented me with a spreadsheet documenting how many of New Belgium’s employee-athletes had inspired one another to get out there and exercise. He’s a quantitative guy through and through. But when it comes to beer, Woodard has only a vague sense of its nutritional properties. He cites no studies. He offers no analysis on its health effects. He doesn’t even know how many calories are in New Belgium’s products. “I don’t give it a whole lot of consideration,” he says, shrugging. Soon, he’s reaching for a bottle of New Belgium + Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale. 

Hines doesn’t get much deeper into the science, either. Sure, he is conducting what he cheekily calls his “unsanctioned and unofficial study of endurance racing and the integration of beer from training to race recovery,” but so far his conclusions are little more than common sense. He says he realized that drinking beers that are more than 6% alcohol before a run will cause him to “start thinking I’m a little smarter and more nimble than I am.” For recovery, he’s found that if he goes too big—New Belgium’s Trippel Belgian-style ale (8.5% ABV), for instance—he’ll feel every last gram of booze. “Then it’s lights out,” he says.

As we hop onto our bikes to return to New Belgium, I experience beer-fueled fitness firsthand. The sun is setting behind the Front Range, and I’m feeling tip-top. After two pints, I’ve done my “carbo-loading,” and I’m feeling a slight buzz. My beach cruiser suddenly feels lighter and swifter, and I push myself to the front of the pack, flying in tandem with New Belgium’s avid cyclists. And as our crew finally pulls into the brewery, Woodard, the state-champion bike racer, turns to me and smiles. “That took a lot less time on the way back,” he says. “Or at least it felt like it did.”