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Is It Safe to Exercise With a Hangover?

nutrition performance recovery running Oct 03, 2022

Most of us know that alcohol consumption screws with our next day performance in the gym. But many of us still do it. Some do it every weekend. We know our work-outs usually aren’t as productive or performed at our highest level, but are we actually causing harm?

“Sweat it Out”

There are still many people that believe one of the best cures for a hangover is to “sweat it out” at the gym. Let me put that idea to rest right away. This is false and can be dangerous. The most immediate danger we face in the gym after a night out is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic. When we drink, our kidneys are not able to absorb urine at its usual rate so our bladders fill more quickly. Hence, the more frequent bathroom trips. This messes with our normal fluid balance which will lead to an increase of insulin production and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is the result. So even if we were drinking water with our glasses of wine, we are still going to experience some dehydration effects from alcohol. The next day we then go to the gym and our glands produce sweat, which further messes with our fluid balances and leads to further dehydration and hypoglycemia. So do not be fooled that “sweating it out” after a night of drinking is the right tactic.

We should wait until alcohol has cleared our systems completely before exercising. Now the time it takes for this to happen does depend on a few factors (i.e. gender, size, whether or not food was consumed with alcohol, etc.) As a general rule of thumb it takes 2 hours per drink for the alcohol to be cleared by your system. So if you had 8 drinks on Friday night, plan for at least 16 hours before the alcohol has cleared your system. And just because the alcohol has cleared, that doesn’t mean the hangover symptoms are gone.

PRs with a Hangover

You may hear anecdotal stories of people that have hit PRs while being hungover. Most likely, that is all it is - a story - not truth. Hangovers really impair our body functions. First off, alcohol impairs our sleep. Sleep becomes shallow and restless. We are often unable to fall into REM sleep, which is when our body is fully relaxed and our bodies repair and recover from the day before. So if you worked out before you went out for a night of drinking, your body is not repaired by the time you wake up the next morning. Also, alcohol affects our hand-eye coordination, motor skills, and reaction time. Add all that to a sleepless night and dehydration, I would strongly recommend staying away from any higher skilled movements, and definitely do not shoot for a PR. That is when injuries happen.

What is safe to do with a hangover?

Re-hydrate. Re-hydrate. Eat vitamin rich foods. And re-hydrate. This is step number one.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do any form of exercise after a night out, but you may need to change your framing. Many people see the next day's work-out as a “punishment” for consuming so many calories the night before. When we are punishing ourselves in a work-out we tend to push the intensity. This is not advisable. Stick to lower skill movements at low intensities. Keep checking in with your symptoms. Is your headache getting worse? Are you having a hard time regulating your heart rate? These are signs that you are pushing yourself beyond what is healthy for you.

For some people this may mean you have to take a day off from the gym. That is okay! Make it an active recovery day. The danger is when you fall into the pattern of this being a regular occurrence. That’s when you will see regressions and that’s when frustration will set in. Instead, just dial back on the drinks. Your gym-self will thank you!

Shannon Hall, PT, DPT

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