The simple answer to the question ‘how do I avoid a hangover getting in the way of a bike ride?’ is: don’t drink too much. But we all like to have our cake and eat it.
Studies have shown that alcohol consumption in Britain typically increased by around 40 per cent in December, with over 600 million units trickling down our throats.
Cyclists are certainly not immune – Strava’s 2017 report showed ‘beer’ and ‘wine’ as the third and fourth most commonly referred to food and drink items to appear in activity titles – at 33,581k and 10,870k respectively.
What effect does a hangover have on your bike ride?
Hangovers can result in dehydration, nausea, slow reaction times and there’s probably an element of fatigue as well – since drinking reduces the quality of sleep.
Whilst most people find they fall asleep quickly after a drink, it's not the best quality - post alcohol you'll spend less time in deep sleep and more time in the less effective Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage.
The primary concern however is the effect alcohol has on hydration levels.
Alcohol is a diuretic – so drinking too much leads to dehydration because it makes the kidneys produce more urine.
If you do ride, once you start sweating, you’ll be loosing even more fluid, making dehydration worse – which reduces performance because the flow of oxygen and nutrients is slowed.
Charity Drinkaware also tells us that drinking can increase the potential for “unusual heart rhythms” for up to two days after drinking – even more so if you’re an irregular drinker.
A night out tends to result in a pretty serious influx of liquid based calories - too. One pint of average strength 4 per cent beer contains about 197 calories. That won't have an immediate effect on your performance - but it will over time. And before you counter with the fact you need the calories to ride - your body isn't able to convert alcohol into glycogen, needed during exercise.
Alcohol also inhibits glucose production in the liver - meaning that blood sugar levels plummet - which is why you might crave sugary food and drink the next day.
“After a drinking binge, you’re chronically malnourished and in dire need of hydration and glucose,” explains sports physiologist Nick Tiller. “You have gained no glycogen from the binge, and having an energy source like alcohol in the system is never good for recovery — particularly as it may interfere with carbohydrate metabolism.”
How can you avoid the hangover?
Firstly: keep track of your drinks. Education charity Drinkaware includes anyone taking in over 14 units a week in its danger group.
The NHS refers to a ‘binge’ as anything over six units for a man or woman – that’s two to three standard glasses of wine over 13 per cent of two to three pints of four per cent beer.
Aside from "drink less", there are some other tips for hangover avoidance. All of these were thoroughly tested at our very own Cycling Weekly Christmas party, to great success, we reckon five and six make the biggest difference...
1) Don’t drink on an empty stomach
Make sure you have a good meal before you go out – having food in your stomach helps slow the rate at which your body absorbs alcohol.
2) Drink water between every alcoholic drink
This reduces dehydration, slows down your drinking and encourages you to think about how much you’re having. If you feel like drinking a glass of water overly draws attention to your sensibility, go for a soft drink and no one will guess your game (you can laugh at them if you're riding together the next day).
3) Don’t mix your drinks
Pick wine, beer, or a certain spirit, and try to stick with it.
4) Avoid rounds
If people are buying rounds, try to duck the trend and just buy your own drinks – that gives you much more control over what you have.
5) Stop early
It takes your body an hour to process each unit of alcohol. Stop drinking before the end of the night – that gives you a couple of hours of processing time before you go to bed.
6) Hydrate before bed
Everyone knows you should drink a glass of water before you go to bed – but add a hydration tablet (like Nuun or High5 Zero) for the best effect.
Does a ride help ease a hangover?
Perhaps you’ve ignored all of the above – or you just know you’re going to. The hangover is already present or looming – will riding help?
As outlined above, your indulgence will result in fatigue and dehydration - so attempting high intensity exercise isn't particularly advised.
However, sitting around inside a stuffy house can make you feel worse – and getting some fresh air into your lungs can wake your body up, and get the blood pumping.
Whilst the concept of 'sweating it out' is very much a myth (you're dehydrated, sweating more isn't ideal), alcohol is a depressant – it slows brain activity and the release of endorphins. Exercising causes new release of the happy hormone, which can give you a bit of a boost.
If you do intend to ride, replenish your glycogen stores with a very hearty breakfast, and drink plenty of water - ideally with a hydration tablet added. Keep the intensity low, breathe in the fresh air, and remind yourself never to let it happen again. Again.
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Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is a traditional journalist by trade, having begun her career working for a local newspaper, where highlights included interviewing a very irate Freddie Star (and an even more irate theatre owner), as well as 'the one about the stolen chickens'.
Previous to joining the Cycling Weekly team, Michelle was Editor at Total Women's Cycling. She joined CW as an 'SEO Analyst', but couldn't keep her nose out of journalism and in the spreadsheets, eventually taking on the role of Tech Editor before her latest appointment as Digital Editor.
Michelle is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 1904rt.
Michelle is on maternity leave from July 8 2022, until April 2023.
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