Sport and alcohol, best enemies? Although these are two very pleasing practices on paper, their combination seems audacious to say the least. However, the scientific findings are more mischievous than expected.
Intuitively, any normally corticated individual would tend to think that wine - and a priori all alcohols, from beer to liquor to spirits - is detrimental to sporting performance. This is a view held by top sportsmen and women, who exhibit the strictest dietary discipline and a lifestyle that forbids any inclination to excess. However, some football stars have unashamedly displayed their penchant for the bottle, while on the other hand, some true ascetics have remained perfectly anonymous throughout their career. For the average person, on the other hand, we might think that a simple concern for moderation would be more than enough. But the reality is not so simple.
Is sobriety inseparable from sporting performance?
This is where a merciless battle between psychology and physiology is being waged, as Fabrizio Bucella, a physicist with a doctorate in science and professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, points out. "If you look at pure performance only, for example the stopwatch in a race, and remove everything else, sobriety can help. There is no benefit from a glass of wine that you can't get from another food: polyphenols are found in fruit and coffee, ferritin can be supplemented, and a little magnesium helps with muscle relaxation. A real slap in the face for those who hoped to justify a glass of red on the basis of its undeniable nutritional benefits. The problem is that this discussion is made all other things being equal," continues Professor Bucella. But if you have a glass of wine with your friends or family, you are also more relaxed and have a better evening. The next day, you are more motivated to go to training. If we had done the opposite, we might have been better on one side and worse on the other.
Can wine be beneficial for sport?
If the unsuspected virtues of wine exist, just like those of beer, it seems essential to separate the wheat from the chaff. For example, because of its polyphenol content - which is also found in fruit and vegetables, tea and coffee - red wine reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease if consumed in moderation. And Fabrizio Bucella continues: "Where it gets interesting is that it has recently been shown that these beneficial effects are more marked in people who practice regular sports. The arteries recover their elasticity, there is less bad cholesterol (LDL) and an increase in good cholesterol (HDL). Sport is therefore to some extent conducive to a better metabolism of alcoholic drinks such as red wine. In addition, the expert points out that "regular consumption of red wine increases the level of ferritin. This can help some sportsmen and women, especially extreme sportsmen and women, who are rather prone to anaemia. Alcohol is also a muscle relaxant and has a positive effect on muscle relaxation. From there, we can claim that a glass of wine is worth a session at the physiotherapist's... Let's not take bladders for lanterns".
In this respect, we would be wrong to underestimate the power of cohesion created by the famous "third half", the festive moment par excellence that concludes team sports competitions. Fabrizio Bucella confirms this: "The post-match moments, the famous third halves, strengthen the spirit of fraternity and the bonding of the group. Everyone agrees that victory is not only due to the pure performance of the athletes, nor to their skill. The mental state of the players is fundamental, as is the harmony of the group.
At what time of day is a sportsman allowed to drink?
Just as one should avoid going out drinking cocktails until dawn the day before an interview or a major oral, it is strongly advised against drinking alcohol during the 24 hours preceding a competition, "especially if the performance involves excessive sweating: sun, high temperature and humidity", Fabrizio Bucella stresses. But here again, not all sports are equal, since the ethanol contained in wine acts in two stages on blood pressure, lowering it for six to twelve hours before raising it. To our hunting friends, "if you shoot a rifle, it can be useful to have a small glass before the event, it reduces the tremor". But beware of the backlash. At the 1968 Olympic Games, Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was reportedly stripped of a bronze medal for having drunk two beers before the shooting event.
Which sports are most incompatible with alcohol consumption?
At first sight, no sport seems particularly contraindicated, as long as wine consumption is measured. However, our expert admits that endurance events, which require special diets before the competition, are not conducive to wild parties in the days leading up to the event. Marathon, trail and other triathlon events require a little bit of greening up. "I know friends who still sip their little drink with the evening meal and run like gazelles. The question then becomes: if I hadn't had a drink, would I have run better? It all depends on the goals you set yourself and why you do sport.
If there are many examples of former sportsmen and women embarking on a wine-growing adventure, we are entitled to ask ourselves whether the effects of sport are not to some extent similar to those of alcohol, at least from a physiological point of view. In this respect, science provides us with some particularly enlightening explanations: "The intake of ethanol is globally involved in the modification of GABA receptors, the main neurotransmitter of the nervous system. Ethanol causes the body to release dopamine and endorphins, giving a stimulating sensation of well-being," says Fabrizio Bucella. The release of endorphins also occurs with running or any other sporting activity. The feeling of well-being makes it possible to run longer, and continues when the sport is over. Happiness, in short.
Finally, many bon vivants and Sunday lunchtime athletes argue that sport helps them to get over an evening that was not filled with mineral water. However, it seems counter-intuitive to double the dehydration caused by alcohol by an activity that increases its intensity. "This being the case, it allows you to get the machine going again, without thinking about other things. The metabolism speeds up, and toxic residues are eliminated more quickly.
We secretly hope that the endorphins will give us the balm we need to deal with the little sadness of the day before," moderates Fabrizio Bucella. In short, there is only one golden rule: listen to your body.