It’s common for rock climbers to drink alcohol after climbing. It’s also common for rock climbers to go climbing the morning after drinking alcohol. If done in moderation and sensibly, this can be fine. But it can also be unsafe and affect climbing performance both in the short and long-term.
It’s my stag party soon and a big part of the plan is to go rock climbing. As alcohol is typically central to a stag do, I’ve been wondering recently how sensible it is to combine rock climbing and alcohol.
It’s not just on my stag trip that the two activities of drinking and climbing might come in to close proximity. Alcohol comes into a climber’s life all the time and it’s often part of the climbing lifestyle. A pub is a good option for food, drink and relaxation on the Saturday night of a weekend away rock climbing. The alternative of relaxing in the campsite, hostel or hotel usually comes with a few beers, some wine or the odd whiskey. Then there is the trip to the local pub that can follow an evening session at the climbing wall. The next day, climbers can be out climbing again. I’ve been around climbing and alcohol in all these situations and my forthcoming stag has got me thinking about what affect this has lifestyle has on climbers and whether it makes it harder to keep yourself and your climbing partner safe as well as to climb at your best.
The impact of alcohol
Alcohol slows reaction time and impairs judgment, coordination, vigilance, hearing and vision (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012, Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2010). How much a person experiences these effects varies depending on a variety of factors, including how much alcohol they have consumed, age, gender, physical condition, amount of food eaten before drinking and use of drugs (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). Although moderate alcohol consumption can have positive health effects, this is dependent on these and other factors.
The US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010, pp.31-32) also points out that there are certain circumstances in which people should not drink at all. This includes “individuals who plan to drive, operate machinery, or take part in other activities that require attention, skill, or coordination or in situations where impaired judgment could cause injury or death.” Rock climbing certainly falls within this advice. Someone with impaired reaction times, judgment, coordination and vigilance is going to be worse at, for example, belaying, placing gear, setting up anchors, route finding and not falling off. Going rock climbing with alcohol in your system is therefore a good way to increase your chances of having an accident and bringing serious harm to you and/or those you are climbing with.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone drink alcohol and then immediately go rock climbing. Maybe no one I know is that foolish or maybe I just haven’t climbed in the right (or wrong) places. It’s also something I won’t be doing on my stag trip. However, I don’t rule out the possibility that people do drink and climb (Al Evans’ account of being a rock climbing alcoholic shows it can happen). Yet, what is common is for people to go climbing the morning after drinking the previous night and this is something I could imagine happening on my stag trip.
This interests me because anti-drink driving campaigns have now educated people that they may still be over the legal drink drive limit if they drive a car the morning after drinking. If someone could be over the legal drink drive limit the next day, are they really safe to climb?
The morning after
A hangover is the obvious signal of too much to drink the night before and it is the sort of thing that happens to those on a stag trip. It is also an obvious signal that climbing that day is a bad idea. In addition to running the risk of suffering the effects of alcohol described above, a hangover brings a reduced ability to make split second decisions, dehydration, headache and hypersensitivity to light and sound (DrinkAware, 2012). It’s hard to see how you can climb safely and well when you’re like that.
However, I won’t be able to take the absence of a hangover as a signal that it will be safe for me or my friends to climb on this stag trip. This is because we could still have alcohol in our systems from the night before and this alcohol might still affect us.
This issue arises because the body can only get rid of a small amount of alcohol at a time. About 10% of the alcohol is eliminated through breathing and sweat. The liver must get rid of the remaining 90% and it can only metabolise a small amount of alcohol at a time. The excess alcohol is left to circulate in the body (Montana Department of Transportation, 2004 and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). Alcohol is generally removed from the blood at a rate of about one unit per hour. This means that a 250ml glass of wine would take about three hours to break down and a pint of normal beer about two hours. However, this rate varies on the basis of factors like physical size, gender, age, how much food has been eaten, type of alcohol and metabolism (NHS, 2012). It’s also a myth to think that lots of black coffee and a cold shower will sober you up (Joyce, 2007). There is nothing you can do to make your liver remove alcohol faster (Montana Department of Transportation, 2004). This means that on my stag trip I may be able to wake up my friends with coffee the morning after some celebratory drinks, but I can’t sober them up.
Affect on safety
It could be argued that the fact that the legal drink drive limits allows for some alcohol to be in your blood means that there is a amount of alcohol you can have and still be safe to do tasks involving concentration and coordination (like driving or rock climbing).
I’m not particularly comfortable with this argument, mainly because I find it hard to believe that people can accurately judge when they have reached that limit. The other good reason is that authoritative sources say this idea of a safe limit is false. The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) states that these legal limits don’t define a level below which it’s safe to operate a vehicle. It points out that alcohol impairment begins to occur below the legal limits, with the USA’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreeing that even a small amount of alcohol in the blood can impair judgment and coordination.
In addition, according to the Institute for Alcohol Studies (2010), even after all alcohol has left their body, a person’s skills and faculties don’t necessarily return to normal immediately. They cite a study in which airline pilots who performed routine tasks in a simulator found that, before having any alcohol, about 10% of them couldn’t perform all flight operations correctly. After reaching a blood alcohol concentration of 100mg/dL (above the 50mg/dL or 80mg/dL drink drive limit that exists in many countries), those who couldn’t perform all operations correctly increased to 89%. Crucially, this study found that, even 14 hours after having alcohol, and after all the alcohol has left their systems, 68% of these airline pilots couldn’t perform all the operations correctly.
I’ll admit that I don’t really understand how alcohol can still affect you hours after it’s left your system, but this study does make me think about how fit someone is to climb the day after drinking. It also concerns me that this study found that 10% of sober airline pilots couldn’t do flight operations properly, but that’s a different issue.
Affect on performance
Not only can drinking make you a less safe climber the next day, it can also mean you will not be climbing at your best.
Your liver will be busy trying to get rid of the toxic by-products of the alcohol in your body and so will not be able to remove the lactic acid produced during exercise as well as it should. This means you will lack strength and power as well as getting tired more quickly (DrinkAware, 2012).
In addition, alcohol is a diuretic (i.e. it makes your kidneys produce more urine) and this means that drinking too much alcohol can lead to dehydration. You need to be hydrated when exercising in order to maintain the flow of blood and so get oxygen and nutrients to your muscles (DrinkAware, 2012).
As well as these more immediate effects, alcohol can undermine any improvements in performance you may get from climbing and so impair your training.
According to Dave Macleod (2008), alcohol mainly affects rock climbing training by reducing the quality of recovery and increasing recovery time. It does this by interrupting the body’s sleep cycle. This is a problem because the growth hormones crucial for muscle growth and recovery are released during deep sleep (Rainey, 2011, DrinkAware, 2012). Alcohol can also reduce the amount of testosterone in your blood and testosterone is needed to gain muscle (DrinkAware, 2012).
Lastly, drinking a lot of alcohol can increase your weight. It’s high in sugar and so contains a lot of calories. Alcohol can also slow down the amount of calories you’re able to use in exercise. Your body can’t store alcohol and so tries to quickly get rid of it. This gets in the way of such things as absorbing nutrients from food and burning fat (DrinkAware, 2012). More weight needs more muscle to pull it up the rock.
Although I wasn’t exactly seeing my stag trip as an opportunity to push my grade and train, I would like to be climbing reasonably well and too much alcohol could prevent that.
So what do you do?
Dave Macleod’s (2008) advice for offsetting the worst effects of alcohol on rock climbing training is to have a proper athletes meal (i.e. high carbohydrate) and plenty of water after climbing. He also recommends not having a greasy takeaway after your drinking session, as beer combined with something like a kebab is a great way to put on weight.
More generally, you can either not drink around your rock climbing or drink in moderation. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010, p.31) defines moderate alcohol consumption as “1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.” The UK Government advises that men shouldn’t regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day (about a pint and a half of 4% beer) and women shouldn’t regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day (about 175ml of wine) (DrinkAware, 2012). However, as noted above, the effect that even this moderate drinking has on someone will vary depending on a range of factors and so hard and fast rules are difficult to arrive at.
My friends may not be expecting only moderate (or no) drinking on my stag trip. However, they will be expecting rock climbing and I don’t want anything bad to happen to them when they are doing it. Like so many things in rock climbing, it may just come down to making a judgment. Making judgments on risk is inherent in rock climbing and one of the skills that climbers develop. These judgments rely on knowledge of risks and the variables that affect them. I now know more about the impact of alcohol on rock climbing and so I hope I can make good decisions on this stag trip and on future climbing trips.
UPDATE: I’ve now been on my stag trip and you can read my post about it by clicking here.
UPDATE: I’ve just read the latest of the Guardian newspaper’s series of articles Dr Dillner’s Dilemma in which she asks if it is ever ok to drink and drive. It notes new research finding that even a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.01% increases the risk of an accident (the UK legal limit for BAC for driving is 0.08%). It made me think about the post-climb pint again.
UPDATE: 25 August 2016 – I’ve just come across a really interesting article in Climbing magazine that looks at whether a beer is a good recovery drink after exercise. It concludes that a beer won’t help recovery.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) Frequently Asked Questions – Alcohol. Downloaded 14 September 2012.
US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture (2010) Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.
DrinkAware.co.uk (2012) Can alcohol affect sports performance and fitness levels? Downloaded 18 September 2012.
Institute of Alcohol Studies (2010) Alcohol and Accidents.
Joyce, Julian (2007) Waking up to the effects of a few drinks, BBC.
Macleod, Dave (2008) Alcohol and training. 24 January 2008, downloaded 14 September 2012.
Montana Department of Transportation (2004), BAC and you.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, The ABCs of BAC.
NHS (2012) How long does alcohol stay in your blood? Downloaded 19 September 2012
Rainey, Alli (2011) How drinking alcohol can impact your rock climbing performance. 26 May 2011, downloaded 14 September 2012.