There comes a time during the White Rock Marathon in Dallas, Texas, when runners are presented with a drinking choice slightly different from water or sports drink. Be it from a vendor on the course or friends or strangers in the crowd, beer is prevalent.
Surface impression: Beer and running? The two presumably should clash.
“I had three in the 2010 White Rock Marathon,” runner Melvin Chu said.
Chu explained this at Ringo’s, a bar in the Shops at Legacy in Plano, Texas, surrounded by about 10 other runners, members of the group Runners Drink Beer. The name fits, because they do. Runners drink beer.
In colonial America and 18th century Britain, races often were organized at taverns, and the tradition has never completely faded from the sport. On Nov. 18, at the Beer Mile in Fort Worth, Texas, participants chugged a beer after each lap of a mile race. Michelob Ultra sponsored the popular Katy Trail 5K in May and a half marathon in late October. The Hash House Harriers, featuring a chapter in Dallas, encourages drinking in their groups, which span 185 countries. A study by the American College of Sports Medicine revealed that runners are more likely to drink than people who don’t run.
Runners Drink Beer formed a couple of years ago when Chu discovered his love of running. He started with the goal of losing weight, then started trying races.
He was casual about what he ate and drank before workouts, but he was careful to eat healthful foods and avoid alcohol before he raced.
Then, the night before one 5K, he decided to experiment and drank three or four beers. The result? His 5K time was more than a minute faster than his previous best.
“Maybe it’s just a poor excuse to go drinking,” Chu said, “but honestly I think it works.”
Chu, who ran the New York City Marathon in early November, made it a tradition, also adding pizza to his night-before repertoire. He started a group, along with friend Kyle Hemmer, that attracted about 30 followers, most of them recreational runners such as Dianna Capen.
Capen and about 20 others from the group ran the Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas half marathon in early December. They planned for the race, and for their pre-race drinking at the Bellagio.
“We’re putting on a party for after the fact on that Sunday as well,” she said.
Although the idea of drinking and running sounds like fun, experts’ advice is decidedly mixed.
Yes, several studies have shown that alcohol in moderation can help protect the cardiovascular system. It can also hinder runners. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends avoiding alcohol, except for low, social amounts, 48 hours before an event. It recommends against drinking directly after athletic activity, until you have eaten food and hydrated.
But what about at the 20-mile mark, the wall, where beer is served at the White Rock by the Hash House Harriers?
Nancy Clark, author of “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook” (Human Kinetics, $19.95), says there is no scientific evidence to prove that beer could help you. It doesn’t relax your legs. It doesn’t provide any magical boost that might explain why Chu does better after drinking.
Beer does contain carbohydrates. Clark says it provides fuel for your brain, which in turn makes your entire body feel better. She says a sports drink can do the same with far fewer empty calories.
Beer’s diuretic properties, Clark says, shouldn’t hurt runners if they have hydrated properly. “Although, if you are drinking beer the whole way it would be a problem,” she adds.
Indeed, there are limits. Chu says he felt fine after drinking one beer during the White Rock races in 2008 and 2009. Last year, after drinking three, he cramped up during the race.
He still finished with his girlfriend, fellow member Stacy London, who didn’t drink any.
“I wanted to slap him,” she said. “I was dying at the end, and he drank three beers.”