Testosterone, Alcohol and the Athlete

A Big Night Out

Well not a lot to report training wise, as since I posted last, I’ve only done one training session and now I’ve started my end-of-season-break. That one session was pretty good though. I ran a p.o.b. (post-operative best) in flying 20s, of 2.11 seconds. Flying 20s are a rough measure of my top-end speed, and what I should be able to put down on the pole vault runway, I have 30m to accelerate and get into upright running mechanics then hit the first light gate, run flat out for 20m, hit the next light gate, and boom, it gives me my flying 20 time. 2.11 is not particularly quick, but top speed is one of our main focus’ through the winter (just behind not getting injured ever, ever, again) so i hope I’ll be able show progress.

So what else have I been up to now that i’ve got a whole two weeks off?

I’m not particularly proud about this, it not big, its not clever, and its certainly not beneficial to my training, but on Saturday I had a night out with my friends, and I drank alcohol. For the purposes of this article, lets say I had 4-5 drinks. This was bad for my health, but i noticed some interesting things because of my monitoring, which I will come to later.

This is one of the only times of year when its seen as “acceptable” for an athlete to go out. The break at the end of the summer season, having some time off so that it doesn’t affect your recovery or training. The combination of a late night, messing up your circadian rhythm with less sleep and that before you even consider the effect of the alcohol.

Testosterone Rebound

So I’ve had a theory about alcohol for a long time now and its become a bit of a joke among my friends but I read once that you suppress testosterone production while you have alcohol in your system. Obviously this leads to a reduction in your recovery ability while you’re drinking. But we’ve all (at least the males among us) noticed that the day after drinking certain things seem to increase; horniness, women look a bit more attractive, you become a bit more of a “lad”, personally I always notice my beard seems to grow through pretty quick and dark the day after as well. These are all vague indicators of a higher testosterone production*, which seems counter-intuitive but why?

Homeostasis, having your testosterone effectively suppressed for 8-10 hours, your body knows it wants to get the levels back up as quick as possible. It begins producing testosterone and will end up overshooting your normal level, and thus the testosterone boost to higher levels the day after. Your body will quickly see this and attempt to lower the levels, then there will be some oscillation up and down as it finds its set point again.

Just let me make this clear, because this has been interpreted previously as an excuse to go out and drink for increased testosterone. Thats not what I’m saying, the net exposure over this period of time is still lower and so the benefits including recovery will be lower.

Actigraphy is a Cool Word

The other problem with alcohol and recovery from training is that you cannot get into the deeper levels of sleep when you drink it. The deeper levels of sleep are probably some of the more important in terms of recovery from high intensity exercise, so missing these after training should be detrimental.

I’ve been monitoring my sleep so far with the Sleep Cycle App on my iPhone. It works via actigraphy, using the accelerometer in your phone to monitor your movements throughout the night and approximating your sleep cycles. Its marketed as an alarm clock, you set the time you want to wake up and it wakes you as you are in a shallow sleep close to that time, I can vouch for the fact that it works well for this. Waking from a deep sleep can leave you feeling rubbish all day so for people who have difficulty getting up this could be awesome. Its not the most accurate method out there but the best I can afford at the moment and its been accurate enough to pick up the change in my sleep when I drink.

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A textbook nights sleep if I do say so myself

The image above shows my sleep on a good night, the image below shows my sleep after “4-5 drinks”. If we ignore the initial bit (I seem to be able to stay deadly still when I’m falling asleep and it seems to confuse the device a bit), but generally speaking, the lower image has a shorter duration, fewer cycles and and I clearly don’t get as deep if we trust the device.

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Even my Sleep Cycles look drunk

Last week I actually went out for food and had a a cider shandy (half cider half lemonade, because thats how I roll). Even half a pint of cider had a noticeable effect on the depth that I achieved in my sleep cycles. I find this extremely interesting myself, and the ability to clearly see the affect that this can have is a really good piece of feedback to teach you to even avoid that casual drink if you can.

HRV effects of a night out

So using my Polar H7 heartbeat sensor in conjunction with the Bulletproof HRV Sense App I’ve been taking my own HRV data doing various activities over the last few days. Below is a graph showing my HRV over the course of a 5 minute game on Call of Duty, can you see my stress increasing over the course of the game as I’m losing, badly.

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The orange line is my stress throughout the 5 minute game, I was not winning
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I don’t 100% know what this means, but its the power frequencies of the same game, definite correlation

Below is my HRV and Heart rate values for the Friday-Monday. Friday morning, 30th August, is the first value shown, I had Thursday as a rest day then did my high intensity running and bounding session later this day. Saturday then shows the stress this induced on my body. Sunday the 1st is the morning after “4-5 drinks”, my HRV has gone back up a bit but my heart rate is high. Basically it seems to take about 3-4 days before I get back to baseline.

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How to recover from training and going out (hint: you can’t)

I really shouldn’t be drawing conclusions from such limited data but it generally seems like going out and drinking wasn’t necessarily a stresser on my system as I do show a small step towards being more recovered, but I would guess that if I’d trained then my recovery be severely hampered.

Conclusions

It would really be interesting to compare the recovery graph above with the 3-4 days recovery after a hard session without drinking, but I don’t have that yet. I don’t think it should take me 3-4 days to recover from a running session, especially as I’ll be doing them almost every other day throughout the winter, so can we say that alcohol is bad for recovery? Ground breaking I know.

So does this mean I could use the upswinging testosterone boost to enhance my training the day after a night out? Probably not, but maybe. What will probably over-ride this is how crappy you feel from the night before.

Will this then mean you won’t perform as well at training the day after a night out? Probably, but lower performance in training means easier recovery afterwards.

I think, that if you train and then go out that evening you’re creating a false economy, you are negatively affecting recovery but this is difficult to see so you don’t think its affecting training that much. Probably a better route would be going out the night before, your training suffers but you get back on track quicker. An example would be someone who trains Monday to Saturday, with Sunday off, traditionally you might have a night out on Saturday, but I’m suggesting you would get less negative effects by shifting to a Sunday night. Obviously this changes if you’re not training right at your limits.

Alternatively you could not drink or go out. That would be great.

TL;DR

I trained well, I went out, I had 4-5 drinks, alcohol is bad

*In hindsight, I realise that attributing all this to testosterone is a bit too simplified and clearly there would be other influences such as prolactin suppression as well as whole host of things we don’t fully understand yet. I probably should have defined this as some sort of “manliness factor X” to be more all-encompassing but I’m not going to re-write the whole thing now, sorry.

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