Beer always tastes better after a sweet victory. It could be any sort of win: a productive day of backbreaking yard work, a World Cup championship, a punishing workout. If it’s an especially hard-earned victory, it’d be borderline sacrilege to not cheers a round or two. Even some of the world’s greatest athletes know this: Michael Jordan allegedly slammed a six-pack after every game. Yet for years, one burning question has raged on: Is beer a healthy, legitimate alternative to traditional post-workout drinks?
On one side of this tug-of-war match, you have the beer believers: the ones who trumpet beer as a perfectly acceptable, sometimes even desirable, post-workout drink. Beer is full of carbohydrates and electrolytes! Beer doesn’t dehydrate you! And unless you’re training for something crazy, who really gives a shit!
But what does the science say? “Most evidence seems to be equivocal or point to potentially negative effects on recovery and subsequent performance,” says Ryan Kohler, a sports nutritionist at the Colorado University Sports Medicine and Performance Center. And here is just some of that evidence Kohler mentioned.
Alcohol is the main culprit. A 2014 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found a strong correlation between post-workout beer and diuresis (loss of water through urine), slower reaction time and balance. Those last two won’t alarm anyone, but the diuresis should. Another 2014 study published in PLoS One concluded that “alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle and may, therefore, impair recovery and adaptation to training and/or subsequent performance.” That same study found that alcohol also inhibits your muscles’ ability to absorb protein, whether it’s consumed before or after your workout. In short: Alcohol dehydrates and slows muscle growth.
Beer isn’t an adequate source of carbohydrates. According to the USDA, the average beer contains just under 13 grams of carbohydrates. That’s not very much, by most nutritionists’ standards. If you’re an average Gym Joe, Kohler recommends consuming 100-125 grams of carbohydrates post-workout. (Some nutritionists recommend even more; 150 grams for average athletes, 270 for triathletes.) And you should probably be getting those carbs through actual food, not beer. “If beer is the first and only fluid consumed, recovery will be impacted more than if that athlete included some real food and non-alcoholic fluid first,” Kohler says. “So, carbs, protein, and fluid first; beer second, if it’s consumed at all.”
Sure, have a beer or two. Just don’t get carried away. In most scientific studies, including the ones mentioned above, the conclusions are centered mostly on heavy drinking. Michael Jordan’s post-game six-pack would be considered heavy; a single can of light beer would not. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that suggests a single post-workout beer every now and then will drastically hamper your fitness regimen. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: In general, you should try to avoid beer after a workout, especially if you’re a serious athlete looking to make big performance gains. “Beer is such a significant part of the social atmosphere and rituals of many athletes that, in the big picture, a beer or two here and there is probably not going to make or break our age-group ‘fitness careers,'” Kohler says.
If you must have a beer, drink this: Low-calorie beer is your best bet. “If we’re watching our calories post-workout, seek out beers that fall on the lower end of that count. If we’re talking about recovery primarily, look for lower alcohol levels to reduce the impact on the recovery process; at that point, the calories and carbs are probably a non-issue for athletes who are more focused on recovery,” Kohler says.
Guinness also has a reputation for being an excellent post-workout beer. But Kohler isn’t so sure. “I’ve heard things about Guinness as well, including the high iron part,” Kohler says. “There’s not much [data] out there. One reference seems to suggest that there is 0.38% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) in a pint of Guinness. The FDA sets requirements for food labels, and ‘high’ is one of those claims that requires at least 20% of the RDA. So I think the ‘high in iron’ part is probably a stretch, at best.”