Is Booze A Performance-Enhancing Substance For Ultrarunners?

While a frosty beer or refreshing ethyl alcohol can certainly serve as motivation to hurry back, runners have been laboring under the limited view of liquor as solely a recovery drink.

Nonsense.

About halfway to Kidney Fail, Colo., in the midst of an actual event, the July 11 Hardrock 100 Trail Run, Catalan endurance freak Kilian Jornet was offered a shot of tequila at the aid station known as Kroger's Canteen. Since he was not driving, he thought about it for quite a while, then knocked it back, made off like the wind, and won the race. The run, I should say. (Hardrock is very fussy about use of the term "race" and not making people feel bad about losing).

Here is a guy, an athlete who honors his earthly temple with only the purest foods from nature's pantry, who fuels his incredible engine with Alpine stream water and air from above 5,000 meters (meters only, not feet), who was witnessed flossing his teeth with grass after aid stations.

There's alcohol on the training table, of course, but Jornet's endorsement seems to point to advantages in the heat of battle too—an in-flight cocktail, as it were.

Sub-elite ultrarunner and editor of iRunFar.com Bryon Powell spilled just how widespread this practice is, casually mentioning he's had three successful experiences with drinking on the run. Here's how it went down in 2007:

"My hip was bothering me from the outset," he said. "It was my second 50-miler in as many weekends; it was a cold November day in Massachusetts and these guys at an aid station had, basically, a bar set up. The adult beverages were mostly for themselves but they offered drinks to runners. It was a four-lap course, and I took a drink on the first lap. And the second, and third and fourth. It took the edge off, my hip did not bother me and, even though it was a technical course, rocky with a lot of leaves, I was able to negotiate just fine."

Powell was introduced to the joys of a tot on the fly by a trailrunning club in Virginia, some member of which could be counted on to have a flask handy on fat-ass training runs. He is quick to point out that consumption was on the order of an occasional convivial swig, not flat-out chugging.

Roch Horton, the "resident ultrarunning moonshiner" who operates the tequila-friendly aid station at Hardrock, can attest to that point—runners are lightweights when it comes to mid-run drinking.

"I might go through a couple fingers' worth of a small bottle for the entire field," he wrote in an email. "In fact, if you put a penny in the bottom of a tin cup, the agave would barely cover Lincoln's beard. It's equal parts camaraderie/placebo pain reliever."

Though he never touches the stuff, Horton thought an aid station called Kroger's Canteen (which he interpreted as cantina) should offer tequila, if only for the atmosphere. And so the tradition began.

In 2012, five years after his happy four-lap incident, Powell realized he needed a 50-mile qualifier for Western States 100. Unfortunately, a heavy workload had precluded adequate training. He ran as far as he could—20 miles.

"My hip flexors were really tired," he said. "I thought I'd have to walk the next 30 miles, but I had my flask with me and at about mile 25, I thought, time for a bourbon and Coke. Between straight swigging and mixing with Coke at aid stations, I literally consumed the entire flask that day. Ended up running the last 25 miles, made the cut-off time and had a pretty darn good race."

It helped that it was a cool day on a nontechnical course (not too steep or rocky), and that his stomach was cheerful both before the addition of alcohol and after.

"It was performance enhancing in the way that caffeine is performance enhancing," he explained. "My hip muscles were tired—there was this mental barrier. I was thinking, this kinda hurts. I don't feel like running any more. It sort of numbed up the discomfort. I guess it was persistence enhancing rather than performance enhancing."

Earlier this summer, Powell again found himself inadequately prepared, training-wise, at the start line of a 50-miler. Though he's only an occasional beer or wine drinker in real life, he had his flask with him during the race. He got to the halfway point in a very conservative seven and a half hours but felt a pain on the outside of his knee and was predictably fatigued. After breaking out the flask, the pain in his knee went away and he completed the second half of the race in a strong four and a half hours, despite 104-degree heat.

More than a placebo, Powell puts the mid-race cocktail in the same category as anti-inflammatories: It doesn't improve performance beyond your physical capabilities but it may improve persistence—taking the sharp edges off the niggling aches and pains and bone-deep fatigue—which, in ultras, is the name of the game.

"It was a physical effect for sure," he said. "It's an anesthetic. I mean, there is discomfort in ultramarathons. Just as there's a risk of kidney damage when using anti-inflammatories in a race, there's a risk of drinking too much, falling and hurting yourself. So, as with anything that's masking pain, you have to use it judiciously."

Powell hews to a set of personal rules while drinking and running:

• Only in very small amounts. He estimates no more than one and a half ounces over several hours of running.

• Only in conjunction with water, to maintain hydration.

• Only if his stomach is happy at the outset.

• Only in the second half of a race.

• Only in a low-key race, not the focal point of the season.

As a sports nutritionist, Sunny Blende hasn't applied scientific rigor to mid-race alcohol consumption per se, but exercise science in general comes down pretty unequivocally on the side of teetotaling. According to a paper she wrote called Alcohol and the Ultrarunner, alcohol is a diuretic (it makes you pee); it breaks down too slowly to be of much use as a fuel; it inhibits the metabolism of vitamins and minerals, especially B1, which is essential for long-term aerobic activity; and it can impair balance. So that's sort of a bummer.

But Blende is not only a scientist; she's a realist and a person who enjoys a glass of wine in the evening. "Science is not always the last word," she said in an email. "I have anecdotal accounts from runners who thought a sip or two [of alcohol] must have come from heaven when they were low. Alcohol can be an analgesic, so a small amount may mask pain, which would help."

In his extensive coverage of ultras, Powell has come across many events that unofficially offer adult beverages, like Horton at Hardrock, not as a sports drink but as liquid motivation.

"I think this is just ultrarunning not taking itself too seriously," he said. "If you're just out to finish, it's not about maximizing every second. It's a fun diversion during a 12-hour or 23-hour or 36-hour day. I'm sure it's different for the top three or five people but for the rest of us, I'm just getting through. I'm out there running in a beautiful place—it enhances the experience."

As to Kilian Jornet's mid-race shot of tequila, Powell suggested that it served the same purpose as the record-breaking champion's seemingly lackadaisical lingering in aid stations and snapping of photos mid-race.

"You can't apply mental intensity for 22 hours," Powell said. "I'm guessing taking the shot helped him stay chill and reserve mental energy until the last six hours. Then he could bear down and really go."'

Image by Sam Woolley