Let’s play a game: Think of a beverage that goes well with climbing. Three, two, one … Let me guess, was it beer? From climbing’s countercultural roots, in which alcohol seemed to be a staple on walls and as an après celebration, to today’s scene with climbing gyms serving high-end beers on tap, it’s hard to separate drinking and climbing. In fact, according to Climbing’s 2018 reader survey, 43 percent of the magazine’s readers choose a cold beer as a post-climb drink.
However, as driven, health-conscious outdoor athletes, we also wonder, Is alcohol hurting my performance? There’s a lot to wade through here: nutritional and recovery implications; the safety considerations of climbing while drinking; the social/cultural aspects of drinking; and of course, the darker side—alcohol-use disorder (aka alcoholism). Let’s explore.
Nutrition and Recovery
If you’re serious about training gains, alcohol probably won’t help. In fact, there’s evidence that it can be harmful in more ways than one, including:
- Inhibiting recovery
- Decreasing reaction time
- Decreasing peak power the day after consumption (by delaying muscle repair and inhibiting coordination)
- Impairing cognitive function
- Increasing injury risk (due to impaired motor skills and decreased strength)
- Decreasing performance
- Interfering with glycogen restoration (glycogen is the storage form of sugar in your muscles and liver—the fuel that powers muscle contractions and helps keep blood sugar stable)
- Inhibiting sleep
- Increasing urine production/dehydration
- Interfering with protein synthesis (rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue)
- Speeding up digestion (can contribute to bowel issues like diarrhea)
- Providing extra calories (leading to weight gain)
- Decreasing thermoregulation (by way of reducing core temperature and increasing skin evaporation—both of which decrease workload ability)
- Decreasing blood sugar—may lead to hypoglycemia
- Decreasing testosterone production (males)
Taken as a whole, this list sounds pretty bad—and it certainly doesn’t synch up with climbing your hardest. Says Bill Ramsey, longtime 5.14 climber and a professor of philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “Alcohol undermines your recovery, it dehydrates you, it diminishes strength gains from training, it fills you with empty calories …. It is just about the worst thing you can put into your body if you want to get stronger.”
And yet, some climbers seem to do fine with alcohol. Research shows that the effects are likely dose dependent, meaning one or two beers at a given time may not be a problem, but a binge-drinking session probably is, as is chronic overconsumption. It’s all a matter of degree.
The pro climber Paige Claassen drinks a glass or two of wine at night, and says, “I’ve never noticed an effect on my sleep, performance, recovery, or mental stamina.” One study in the journal Nutrients (2010) found that alcohol consumption at 0.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight did not impact athletic recovery. For context, a standard drink in the United States contains 14 grams of alcohol (found in a typical 12-ounce beer). A person weighing 72.7 kilograms (160 pounds) would be able to handle 36 grams of alcohol, or about 2.5 beers, and, in theory, still enjoy adequate recovery from training. This finding is confirmed by a 2021 review in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: Small to moderate amounts of alcohol seem to have little effect on muscle performance and recovery.
From a nutritional lens, your choice to consume alcohol may depend on various factors. If having one or two post-climb adult beverages would make the day perfect—as Claassen says, “It’s like a mini-celebration with my husband or friends to reflect on the day’s successes, efforts, and struggles”—go for it. On the flip side, it’s not recommended to consume alcohol the day before a big climb or comp. In fact, according to Zack DiCristino, medical manager for USA Climbing, the organization prohibits alcohol consumption for their comp climbers within 48 hours of and during a competition.
Safety + Climbing
Alcohol can inhibit critical-thinking skills, as well as gross and fine motor skills and reaction time. Our sport requires a sharp mind to place solid pro and anchors, tie knots, do safety checks, and climb efficiently. Specifically, alcohol affects the cerebellum, the part of the brain crucial for balance, spatial sensory perception, problem-solving, and skilled motor tasks—climbing, in a nutshell. Thus that “nerve-calming” nip of whiskey or beer before a scary lead can do more harm than good. Not only is your ability to climb hampered, but you’re less safe.
Says John Long, who recently wrote about his experience with alcohol-use disorder on Climbing.com (“Stonemaster John Long Comes Clean on Alcoholism”), “There’s no sport more unforgiving on safety errors. It’s not like you’re shooting baskets.” Long adds that even when he was struggling with alcohol, he did not drink while climbing. Recalling his time serving on rescue teams, Long says climbers should ask themselves, “Do I want to join the conga line of corpses of climbing accidents that happen often enough even when people are sober?”
Jonathan Horey, MD, board-certified in addiction medicine and psychiatry, is similarly blunt on the subject: “We know alcohol affects eye and muscle coordination. Any amount of alcohol will influence your brain. Reaction time and cognition are affected. Your ability to process information is slowed, as is the amount of information you can process.” (Um, what was that beta again? Did I tie that knot?) Horey adds that the way alcohol affects individuals varies based on genetics, weight, time since your last meal, and gender.
In short, it’s never a good idea to drink and climb.
Alcohol as a Social Lubricant
Enjoying food and drink is a beautiful part of life, but it’s possible to skip booze and still enjoy the meal and the company.
Alex Honnold, of Free Solo fame, has never had alcohol but says he still manages to party all night when the situation calls for it—as on his world travels. He thinks the emphasis on alcohol as a social lubricant is overblown. “I have plenty of friends who are occasionally wrecked from a big evening of drinking, and I certainly don’t envy them,” he says. “I’d guess that consistently not drinking … doesn’t make a huge difference in life, but it probably helps eke out that extra few percent at the top.”
Long’s opinion mirrors Honnold’s: “People who are trying to push the bar on climbing performance don’t drink alcohol. The two don’t mix. If you’re a weekend warrior or climbing for fun, you may be able to get away with drinking after climbing, but those who are climbing hard don’t drink.”
Jonathan Siegrist, a pro climber who has sent 5.15, skips alcohol when recovery is important, as during intense training periods. “But on a trip—especially in Europe or Asia—I have a drink every night or so,” he says. “Part of the experience of doing things like that is to drink the wine and eat the cheese—or drink the Bijou and eat the noodles if in China—and so I don’t want to look back at my life and think that all I experienced was rock.”
Like the taste of beer or the ritual of having a beer with friends, but not the hangover? Nonalcoholic (aka “near”) beer may be a good option. Keep in mind, however, that some brands still have trace amounts of alcohol—avoid these products if you’re a nursing mom, in recovery, or a comp climber subject to anti-doping testing.
As for beer’s touted health benefits, near beer may contain some polyphenols—which can act as antioxidants and help decrease the risk of chronic disease—plus have anti-inflammatory properties. And some studies (weirdly) show decreased risk of respiratory infection with regular near-beer consumption. Nonalcoholic beer can also be a decent re-hydration beverage, especially with added sodium, which is found in some brands marketed toward athletes. But beer is not the only food that contains polyphenols and anti-inflammatory compounds. You can also obtain these via a healthful diet of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, legumes, and omega-3 fats.
If drinking for fun or for the social aspects is really just drinking to mask alcohol-use disorder, then you’re in trouble. The common “climb + beer” set on repeat may be a harmful pattern, especially if you’re using climbing’s countercultural roots to justify it. It’s a thin line.
How do you know if your drinking is a problem? Both binge drinking on weekends (defined as five or more drinks within two hours for men, and four for women) and regular drinking (more than seven drinks throughout a week) pose increased risk for alcohol-use disorder, which can have severe negative impacts on your health and relationships. Meanwhile, feeling desperate and living in extremes—as Long did during his worst years—is a sign of alcohol-use disorder. There’s an even darker side yet: Alcohol abuse is linked to increased sexual assault—as per the website alcohol.org, 69 percent of sexual-assault events involve alcohol use by the perpetrator, and 43 percent involve alcohol use by the victim. So stay safe in the wilderness by keeping yourself and your climbing partners sober.
Dr. Horey also urges pondering this: “How important is the alcohol to the experience? How much time and energy do you spend on acquiring, consuming, and recovering from alcohol use?” If the balance feels off, reduce your alcohol intake or seek professional help. (Consider organizations like the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation or Alcoholics Anonymous.)
So, should you have the beer? It depends. Take stock of your climbing goals, relationship with alcohol, immediate training plans, and social situation. As Ramsey says, “The trick is to try to find a balance. Some people do it easily and others not so easily. I (and other people I know) have completely cut out alcohol to send a hard project, and it definitely helped. But much of the time, I still enjoy a beer or two at the end of a climbing or training day.”
Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD, is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers
.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian.