Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Pre-race beer: Good for the girls, bad for the boys?

Drinks station: A runner makes use of a pub in the first London Marathon in 1981.

JUST when we thought we’d heard it all before, there was remarkable news this week about alcohol and its effect on your running.

Apparently a few beers the night before a big run has been scientifically demonstrated to be beneficial.  But only if you’re a woman!  

Yes, men are generally bigger and bulkier and can therefore absorb the hard stuff in bigger quantities and more efficiently than the fairer sex. We all understand that. But now we’re being told that women who down three or four pints will apparently run better the next morning! And men who do the same thing definitely won’t!

When this startling new research appeared in the press last week, your Clapped-Out Runner was quick to scoff. After all, these days many of us regard the good old Daily Mail as little more than a reactionary tabloid rag masquerading as a serious middle-class newspaper. However, on closer scrutiny, I discovered the findings actually emerged from an experiment staged by Runners’ World magazine - and the ‘guinea pigs’ were proper, experienced runners.

The results were described as ‘astonishing’ – and, for once, the Daily Mail’s hyperbole seemed justified.

The splendidly-named Dr.Gig Leadbetter, from Colorado Mesa University's Human Research Lab, led the research. She tested five male and five female runners with the aim of discovering the effects of moderate drinking on the next day's running performance. The subjects, all aged between 29 and 43 and all of whom regularly ran  around 35 miles a week, were described as moderate drinkers who knocked back a bit less than the official recommended weekly allowance.

The main experiment was split into two parts - The Beer Run and The Exhaustion Run.  

The Beer Run saw them go for a 45-minute evening run at 'reasonably high intensity'. Immediately afterwards out came the beers. They were each closely monitored and had to stop drinking once they reached a level of 70mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. For some of those tested, this apparently required necking four pints of the golden nectar.

The Exhaustion Run then followed the next morning. They were asked to run at about 80% effort for as long as they could tolerate.  

All of this happened twice, once with a genuinely strong beer being used, and once, unbeknown to the runners, with a placebo brew involved.

Amazingly, ALL the women registered considerably better times after a night on the beer, running on average 22 per cent longer than when they had the placebo. The men, however, lagged behind after drinking the hard stuff, becoming 21 per cent worse runners the morning after!

Dr.Leadbetter, a runner herself, admitted it would be wrong to jump to firm conclusions based on such a small sample, but said if similar results were to come from further studies then the  findings would be very important.

As many of us know only too well, there’s nothing better than an ice-cold beer after a long run, and over the years many good distance runners have openly admitted they indulge fairly heavily. Some coaches have even been known to encourage athletes to drink the night before a race, believing it helped with stamina and energy.

One top runner famously fond of his beer was the brilliant 1970s superstar Dave Bedford. The story goes that in March 1981 Bedford was enjoying himself in the Luton nightclub which he owned, when a drunken bet was struck, challenging him to run the very first London Marathon being staged the following morning.  Bedford phoned organiser Chris Brasher in the middle of the night and insisted on being given a place in the race.  The exhausted Brasher, in urgent need of his sleep, told Bedford he could do what the hell he liked and to get off the phone!  

Bedford was unfit, full of lager and pina coladas, but got himself to the rain-soaked start-line in Greenwich Park. An hour or two later the cameras captured him being violently sick during the race, but after finishing in a respectable time, Bedford reckoned his throwing-up had been due to the curry he’d eaten at 3a.m. rather than the alcohol!

Excessive drinking is clearly not a good thing, but there have been plenty of media messages about the health benefits of a daily glass of red wine. Portuguese runner Antonio Pinto, a vineyard owner himself, was said to have enjoyed more than just a glass a day, and he won the London Marathon three times!

On the other hand, there are runners for whom drinking even a tiny amount of alcohol on the eve of a race or a hard run would be a recipe for disaster. We should also beware the mindset that we can always ‘run it off’ and get away with more because we’re fitter than the average drinker. According to the American College of Sports Medicine: “Alcohol abuse is as prevalent in the athletic community as it is in the general population.”

Perhaps the runners who should take most care are those in Ipswich. I hear that some of the alcohol on sale in Suffolk’s county town is pretty toxic stuff: It was reported last week that you could buy a single bottle of cider for £3.99, which contains 22.5 units of alcohol – more than the recommended WEEKLY upper limit!

A reporter from my old workplace, the Evening Star, found three-litre bottles of Frosty Jack’s cider (7.5% proof) on sale in the town for under £4.  Let’s hope that particular establishment won’t be supplying the catering for any Ipswich JAFFA or Ipswich Harriers social events!

Most runners like a drink, but know what their body can cope with.  I’ll leave the last word to a Daily Mail reader who responded to the recent publicity with details of his own training regime:  “I am now 53,” he wrote. “I drink four or five pints a night. I get up at 4a.m., eat a banana and a handful of raisins, leave the house at 5a.m. and run 18k before doing a day’s work, five days a week. Not bad for an old fart?”

Not bad indeed.

* Champion runners of yesteryear Alf Shrubb and Walter George liked a beer or two, while ultra-running pioneer Arthur Newton was a big fan of cigars. Check out their amazing life stories, written by Rob Hadgraft and published by Desert Island Books, at www.robhadgraft.com

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