‘People fear that if they give up drinking they lose the craic’
Athletes say they have found that even a little alcohol can damage their performance
Ciara Griffin is tackled by Dyddgu Hywel of Wales during this year’s Six Nations Championship: “In my own experience it’s very difficult to drink and perform at a high level.” Photograph: INPHO/Camerasport/Stephen White
Irish rugby player Ciara Griffin quit drinking alcohol in her late teens when she knew she was serious about the sport.
“I understand people like to drink socially and I’m not against drinking, but unfortunately in my own experience it’s very difficult to drink and perform at a high level,” says the 23-year-old.
Although some athletes manage to succeed at a high level and drink alcohol, it increases your risk of injury, affects performance and lengthens recovery time.
“It’s very difficult to train and gym all the time if you’re going out having a lot of drinks at the weekend. It’s just giving your body a chance to recover,” says Griffin.
“I had to make a decision whether I wanted to take my sport really seriously or go out and socialise a lot. I prefer playing sport to socialising. It was a no-brainer for me because I knew what it takes to train and perform at a high level so I’d no problem giving up that.
“I felt way better after giving it up [drinking alcohol]. I felt like a new person. Training didn’t take as much out of me. People digest things differently so I might not affect other people as much as it affected me.”
The flanker, who played in the Women’s Rugby World Cup during the summer, says it was hard at the start, having just started college, but she doesn’t feel like she misses out socially now.
“People at the start were asking, ‘you’re not drinking, how come?’, but when they understood my situation and what I wanted to do there was no pressure. I never felt peer-pressure to drink,” she recalls.
“I’m not missing out on anything because you can still go out and have fun and chat away to your friends and just have a soft drink or sparkling water. You still get the social impact. People fear that if they give up drinking they lose the craic, but you can still have it.”
The primary school teacher, from Ballymacelligott in Co Kerry, adds that giving up alcohol needs to be a “personal choice”.
“You do it yourself. It’s just like going to the gym or anything. If you’re given a set programme and the trainer tells you to do x, y and z, that programme isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you do it. It’s the exact same thing for giving up drink. You can’t tell a person to give it up.
“I know a lot of amazing players who I look up to and they do have a sociable drink every now and again and they’ve no problem with it. But for me, if you want to reach this level, you cannot drink.”
Aine Donegan, a professional triathlete and part-time nurse, dramatically reduced her alcohol intake because of the impact it had on her training.
The 29-year-old, from Garristown, Co Dublin, raced her first triathlon at a charity event in July 2013 and became Irish Middle Distance National Champion last September.
She took part in her first triathlon for fun, after spotting it advertised while on a night out in Cork, and naturally lowered her alcohol intake as she became serious about the sport.
“I was a pretty normal, teenage, college drinker when I was growing up. With the increase in training, I just found that I didn’t really want to drink. I wouldn’t feel well the next day. It would impact my performance,” she explains.
“I found myself quite dehydrated and sluggish in training so it just naturally happened that I didn’t want to drink anymore. It didn’t make me feel that good about myself or about training.
“As training got more serious and I got more into triathlon and I started to focus on my recovery more, I wouldn’t drink coming up to a big event. In the preceding two or three months I wouldn’t even want to drink alcohol.”
Nowadays, she has an occasional few drinks after a big event – and with the approval of her coach.
“After a big race or a big training block I’d have a few glasses of wine or something, just to chill out completely and relax – not go mad or anything, but make sure everything is done in moderation. My coach actually advocates every now and again to just go out and enjoy yourself and not restrict yourself too much in any way.”
She admits it was a struggle to adjust initially, but now the athlete, who races under a pro licence at Ironman events, has no problem making the sacrifice.
“Initially, I did find it a bit of a struggle. I was in my mid 20s and my friends that I’d grown up with were all going out drinking. I would’ve found a bit of pressure on me to have drinks,” she recalls.
“Sometimes I actually pretended I was drinking when I wasn’t drinking. I would go up and ask the barman to put a lime cordial or something in the sparkling water so I could pretend I was drinking a vodka or something and put a straw in it. That way I could relax more in these social situations.”
“When I do go out, my friends accept that I’ve given up other commitments to just be there and there is a big increase in my training load this year. I did miss some big events this year like my friend’s wedding and my best friend’s 30th, but my friends are really understanding that this is what I do.”
Donegan, who cut down her hours at work and relocated to Greystones, Co Wicklow for training, says not drinking has saved her a lot of money.
Having a background in cardiology nursing, she also understands the impact of alcohol on your heart.
“I’m really aware of the effects alcohol can have on your heart and the dangers of arrhythmia in athletes specifically so that was another reason. The combination of alcohol, dehydration and pushing your heart to those levels can have a major impact on your heart,” she explains.
Conor O’Brien, consultant clinical neurophysiologist at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, warns that alcohol both lowers your performance level and leaves you more likely to get injured.
“Alcohol is the most abused drug by the athletic population, and it does two very specific things. It significantly reduces your aerobic performance. It reduces your athletic performance the following day in what you call ‘the hangover phase’. If you drink on a Friday and play on a Saturday, your performance will go off by about 11.3 per cent,” he explains.
“The second thing is, if you drink alcohol, your injury rate goes up and it’s often in the second half of a game. It is probably, of all the drugs that athletes take, the worst by a distance. It’s readily available and also sports clubs or places like that are where people often start drinking. Alcohol is very much part and parcel of socialising in sports, but really it’s a very poor friend to the athlete.”
He says the impact of drinking alcohol will be different for each individual athlete – and just one drink is enough to have a negative effect.
“The science of it is that the alcohol is metabolised in your liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase so how you metabolise it and how I metabolise it will differ. It is metabolised at a very slow rate so you could metabolising alcohol for 36 hours, even after a glass of wine or a pint of beer,” he says.
“It isn’t just the quantity of it – it’s even any amount of it. The science is very clear that when you drink alcohol, five things happen and they all negatively impact on your physiological function. It affects your ability to use glucose, it affects the production of energy, causes dehydration.
“It’s not just, ‘I only had two drinks,’ – two drinks might be enough. You use an enzyme called NADH to metabolise alcohol. If you’re low in NADH, you’re going to produce lactic acid. In a period of time when you’re exercising, you’re going to fatigue sooner. Even a glass of a beer may be too much in a particular individual.”
Dr O’Brien carried out research on the impact of alcohol consumption on rugby players in the late ’80s and early ’90s and discovered that if they drank alcohol the night before a match, the average reduction in performance was 11.3 per cent. He points out that a coach that could increase a team’s performance by this amount would be “wonderful”.
The father-of-two, who is a personal trainer and pilates instructor at Movement 101 in Swords, Dublin, has experienced a dramatic improvement in his general wellbeing, as well as his athletic ability, since then.
“Over the last six months it’s just really helped me with recovery time, more energy, sleeping better, more alert. My skin improved. It’s weird,” he explains.
“I was doing normal weights but the last while I’ve been doing gymnastic rings, callisthenic stuff. I’m 40 so I’m no spring chicken so in terms of joints, tendons, ligaments and improving flexibility, if you’re getting drunk once a week it’s hard to make those little gains.
“Being hungover, you’re more lethargic. You’re not going to train as hard. If you’re getting drunk on Saturday night, say, Monday you’re still really trying to hydrate yourself. I’ve been training for the human flag and I can’t believe I’m doing that now. It’s a bit like being a kid again.”
Gallagher says the freedom from alcohol is an added benefit of breaking the habit, even though he had already cut down on his intake.
“Even from a year ago, I was dropping body fat so I was down to a half bottle of wine as my treat on a Friday night with some dark chocolate. Going completely free of it is liberating almost. I used to look forward to the half bottle of wine. I was dying to get to Friday night,” he recalls.
“It was a 14.5 per cent bottle. I’d have one glass then usually it was time to bathe one of the kids then come back and drink the second glass. You’d be drunk on it because you’re having so little. But being free from even longing for that is odd, it’s cool.”