Research indicates that student athletes are a population that is at risk for alcohol use—81 percent of college student-athletes used alcohol in the past year, and 62 percent used alcohol in the past month (NCAA, 2014). When the vast majority of student-athletes are using alcohol on a regular basis, we have a problem.
Some factors that contribute to student-athlete alcohol use include stress from the dual roles that they play on campus and the increased scrutiny they receive, overexposure to social settings that promote alcohol use, and challenges related to having less contact with their central support networks. All students, including athletes, also tend to overestimate the alcohol use of their peers and underestimate their own alcohol use, which contributes to a drinking culture on campus.
In addition to the negative consequences of drinking that can affect all students, such as unplanned sexual activity, combination drug use, and binge drinking, college student-athletes have other reasons to avoid using alcohol.
When talking about athletes specifically, there are a number of reasons alcohol use is concerning. In addition to concerns about physical and mental well-being of the students, alcohol hinders an athlete’s performance.
Alcohol Damages the Heart. Intense exercise increases your heart rate. Drinking alcohol even two days before exercising causes additional stress on the heart and can result in unusual heart rhythms (Drink Aware, 2014).
Alcohol Harms Muscle Growth. Alcohol use cancels out gains from a workout. Chronic alcohol use can damage long-term performance by causing muscle damage, muscle loss, and muscle weakness; even short-term alcohol use can impede muscle growth. This muscle loss and weakness is known as myopathy. Myopathy can affect all muscles – such as those in your arms, legs, and heart – in a way that can harm athletic abilities (University Health Center, 2014).
Exercising With a Hangover Decreases Performance. When exercising, the body must continuously remove lactic acid. After drinking, a person’s liver is working hardest to rid the body of the toxic by-products of alcohol and cannot remove the lactic acid. This causes a feeling of fatigue, which lowers athletic performance (Drink Aware, 2014).
Alcohol Causes Dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes the kidneys produce more urine and can cause the athlete’s body to become dehydrated. Staying hydrated helps blood flow so it can carry oxygen and nutrients to the muscles (Drink Aware, 2014). When dehydrated, an athlete may experience low energy, low endurance, cramps, muscle pulls, muscle strains, and muscle loss. Full recovery from dehydration can take up to a week (UC San Diego Intercollegiate Athletics).
Alcohol Hurts Athletic Performance. Alcohol is linked with a loss of balance, reaction time, memory, and accuracy of fine motor skills (Vella & Cameron-Smith, 2010). Drinking alcohol leads to slower running and cycling times, weakens the heart’s ability to pump, impairs temperature regulation, decreases grip strength and jump height, lowers stamina, and reduces strength and power (Kozir & American College of Sports Medicine).
For college student-athletes, avoiding dangerous alcohol use can benefit their performance in and out of the classroom. Through sensible alcohol policies and educational campaigns that challenge students’ misperceptions, colleges can help prevent alcohol use among student-athletes.
For more information, check out our Athletes vs. Alcohol handout here.