I hope you had a great weekend. David Lasnier and I headed into West Chester, PA for the USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach Certification. We’ve been teaching Olympic lift variations for years, but it’s always good to hear it right from the source. I think we both picked up a few good cues that will help refine the learning process a bit.

Last week I discussed, from a nutrition and program design perspective, the idea that living in a “high intensity mode” can be detrimental to recovery and therefore to subsequent performance. The hockey season is long, and if players and coaches aren’t conscious and proactive about their recovery, they’re going to break down toward the middle/end of the season. Recovery is key to long-term excellence. If you missed those posts, you can check them out here:

  1. UCAN Break Carbohydrate Dependence
  2. A New Perspective on Program Design

Essentially this idea boils down to teaching your body to appropriately balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. If you’re not familiar with this terminology, these systems are often oversimplified as:

  1. Sympathetic: Fight or flight (or freeze)
  2. Parasympathetic: Rest and digest

While they’re often discussed as opposing systems, the reality is that they work in a complimentary fashion to create the appropriate environment for the body to be successful. Different strategies have been proposed to monitor the “state” an athlete is in, as athletes that start to get stuck in a sympathetic state or thought to be overstressed/under-recovered/overtrained, which can progress to an even more severe state of parasympathetic dominance if left unchecked. Again, it’s not that one system is good and the other bad, it’s that both need to be emphasized at appropriate times.

I recently came across a study that provides powerful information on how hockey’s original recovery drink physiologically impairs recovery.

Hockey’s Original Recovery Drink
I remember an old teammate of mine from Delaware called me a couple years after I graduated and said, “Neeld, how do I lose fat, while binge drinking 5-6 days per week?” If you’re even remotely health conscious, the futility in this question may strike you as comical. The truth is that many players have a somewhat related question in that they want to know how they can minimize the damage of alcohol without giving it up completely. And I think that many of the nutrition “experts” will quickly lose the attention of older players when they put their anti-alcohol foot down. Is it good for you? Not by a long shot. Will players give it up completely? Not by a long shot, and they’ll shut you out completely if that is your expectation.

This isn’t quite how it works

That said, it’s important to provide players with the necessary information to allow them to make decisions for themselves. On that note, I recently came across an interesting study related to alcohol consumption and recovery: Alcohol Has a Dose-Related Effect on Parasympathetic Nerve Activity During Sleep

In possibly the most appealing study ever offered to college students (I’m sure they weren’t at a loss for volunteers on this one), researchers took 10 sufficiently aged students and had them consume 0 (control group), 0.5 (low dose), or 1.0 g (high dose) of pure ethanol per kg of body weight about 2 hours before they went to bed. On the nights that they consumed the alcohol, they wore a non-invasive device to monitor electrocardiological activity throughout the night.

They found that alcohol consumption increased the students’ heart rate, decreased heart rate variability (HRV), and increased the Low Frequency/High Frequency ratio of HRV, with higher doses being associated with more significant changes. Taken together, these results indicate that, as the title indicates, alcohol consumption leads to a shift toward a sympathetic state by both increasing sympathetic activity and inhibiting parasympathetic activity, with greater degrees of consumption leading to a more significant shift toward a sympathetic state.

Practical Implications
From a practical standpoint, these results can be taken to mean that alcohol impairs sleep quality. While this seems like a pretty straight-forward concept, it directly conflicts with the conception that many players have that alcohol actually helps them sleep. It may help your eyes shut, but your body isn’t resting and recovering during the night.

To help relay this information in more practical terms, let’s take a look at the doses used in the study for three players:


  1. Players 1: 180 lbs = ~ 82 kg
  2. Player 2: 200 lbs = ~ 91 kg
  3. Player 3: 220 lbs = ~100 kg

Alcohol Dosage

  1. Player 1: 82 kg x 0.5 = 41g of ethanol (low dose); 82 kg x 1.0 = 82 g of ethanol (high dose)
  2. Player 2: 91 kg x 0.5 = 45.5 g of ethanol (low); 91 x 1.0 = 91 g of ethanol (high)
  3. Player 3: 100 kg x 0.5 = 50 g of ethanol (low); 100 kg x 1.0 = 100 g of ethanol (high)

Beer Dosage
A typical beer with 4.5% alcohol content contains about 16 g of ethanol.

  1. Player 1: Low Dose- ~2.5 beers; High Dose- ~5 beers
  2. Player 2: Low Dose- ~3 beers; High Dose- ~5.75 beers
  3. Player 3: Low Dose- ~3 beers; High Dose- ~6.25 beers

In other words, it doesn’t take much to significantly impair sleep quality. More importantly, more is worse. Alcohol consumption doesn’t need to be an all or nothing experience. Having a couple beers after a tough game isn’t ideal, but having a dozen will have a significantly detrimental effect on the player’s recovery. On a related note, light beer with a lower alcohol content and less calories looks good on paper, but if it’s between 2 Magic Hat #9s and 12 Coors Lights, then drinking the heavier beer may be a better option.

Also, knowing that processing alcohol will impair sleep quality, it seems logical to shut down your drinking as far before your typical bedtime as possible. Because going to bed and waking up within an hour of the same times everyday (at least as much as possible) is important for establishing an optimal circadian rhythm, this means that drinking after night games should be kept to a minimal (as a habit, exceptions are inevitable), as should drinking during trips that involve significant changes in time zone (e.g. east coast teams playing on the west coast or any North American team playing overseas).

Take Home
Alcohol’s impairment in sleep quality can facilitate a viscous cycle. Because they slept in a more sympathetic state, they’ll wake up feeling less rested and lean on coffee or other forms of caffeine to help kick start their day. Like alcohol, caffeine also pushes them toward a sympathetic state. These habits, superimposed on an already sympathetic lifestyle (training, practices, games, travel, relationship stress, schoolwork for junior/college players, etc.) doesn’t allow athletes to shift back into a parasympathetic state, which significant impairs their ability to recover.

Hopefully you understand the underlying thought process. Players are going to make their own decisions and there will always be exceptional circumstances. That said, it’s important for players to understand what “ideal” is, so that they know when they’re venturing in the other direction. The more time players live in ideal circumstances, or said another way, the less time they spend venturing in the other direction, the better their performance will be over both the short- and long-term.  

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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