When it comes to alcohol, I can be picky. I’m not a beer girl, tequila is hit or miss (but usually a miss), and vodka is a hard no thanks to one bad college hangover that still makes me nauseous to think about. That said, I do appreciate a glass of wine, gin can be fun, and an Aperol spritz makes any day feel like summer in Europe.
I don’t consider myself a big drinker, either. I might have one or two drinks a week, depending on my social battery, and typically on the weekends. So, when I agreed to abstain from alcohol for three weeks to see how it impacted my workouts and overall fitness, I only saw an upside. I was down to experiment. Plus, I was a collegiate track and field athlete, and we had strict no-drinking rules during the competitive season, so I’ve done it before.
Working out has always been a constant in my life. I’m competitive and love to hit new PRs, so I was curious to see if a booze-free stint would help me level up.
Now, my goal for this challenge was not to lose weight or restrict myself, but rather see how my fitness routine and workouts felt sans alcohol. Here are my thoughts and what results I noticed during three weeks of workouts free from booze.
What My Typical Workouts Look Like
I’m a creature of habit and tend to stick to a similar weekly workout schedule, and my plan going into this challenge was to be consistent, so I could compare exactly how I felt with and without alcohol.
I usually work out five days a week and always try to get some form of movement (even if it’s just walking to go get coffee). I live for workout classes, hot yoga, and mid-distance running. By keeping my workouts the same as usual (or when I do consume alcohol), it was an easier and more accurate way to gauge if I noticed a difference.
I also wanted to maintain a regime that included strength, cardio, and stretching, to track how I felt without alcohol on a variety of levels. I do live in a city and am fortunate to have a variety of workout classes at my fingertips and access to a full gym, so I set a goal of mixing workout classes and at home workouts to see how my body reacted to different settings, temperatures, and environments.
My No-Alcohol Workout Routine
Two days a week I go to Solidcore, a reformer-based strength workout class. It is truly the hardest workout class I’ve ever done. It’s a 50-minute, low-impact, high-intensity class with Pilates moves and inspiration. I’ve been regularly attending Solidcore for about a year, and while I get more comfortable with the movement patterns, it never gets easier.
I’m usually sore after taking a Solidcore class, so in between I go to hot yoga at CorePower Yoga. I attend the CorePower 2 classes which are based on Vinyasa yoga for a calming hour-long flow, and the Yoga Sculpt classes which combine cardio and strength to elevate my heart rate. I go to CorePower at least twice a week.
Finally, one or two days a week I run on a treadmill. I do the Peloton Tread classes using my Peloton app, and run an average of four to five miles. I also walk on an incline for 10 minutes as either a warm-up or cool down.
My Sober Sweat Journey
Week one: My sleep improved immediately.
The first alcohol-free week I immediately noticed my sleep improved, in turn impacting my workouts. When I drink, especially hard alcohol, I never sleep well and the following day I’m tired, lethargic, a little ~crabby~, and definitely not motivated to workout.
It’s not just me. Alcohol reduces REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which kicks in about 90 minutes after you initially doze off, and is accompanied by low muscle tone, rapid eye movements, and vivid dreams, research shows this creates an imbalance between your sleep cycles, and negatively impacts your overall quality of sleep. Though I may not feel sick or hungover, I’m more likely to skip a workout altogether after a poor night’s sleep.
My extra sound sleep from no alcohol gave me more stamina during Solidcore and yoga and boosted my energy during runs.
I also instantly noticed an improvement in my tolerance at CorePower during the heated workouts. I don’t look forward to working out in a heated room after drinking, and honestly a little nauseating. When I hit the CorePower workout without alcohol, I noticed my body adapted to the heat easier and faster. While it’s still hot and steamy, I felt less queasy than before with bevvies. That extra comfort allowed me to focus on my form and max out my practice.
Week two: I felt some FOMO…and saw more toned abs.
By the second week, I was still feeling good and sleeping well, but I did (maybe a little reluctantly) skip out on a few opportunities when I normally would have a drink. Instead of a glass of rose at Thanksgiving, I stuck to seltzer and lime. My friends and family knew about the challenge, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I did feel a glimmer of FOMO. But, believe it or not, if you put seltzer in a wine glass, it feels fancy, elevated. I almost tricked myself into thinking I was sipping bubbly.
At the end of week two, I also began to notice some changes in my body composition – specifically my mid-section. When I have more than one drink, I feel bloated the next day. While alcohol is not the only culprit, research continually proves it’s an inflammatory substance that can cause swelling in the body (often in the face and mid-section).
Plus, alcohol has seven calories per gram and is often packed with sugar, says Gabrielle Lyon, DO, a board-certified physician who specializes in osteopathic medicine and nutritional science. As a result, the sugar causes our body to release stress hormones and insulin, in turn triggering inflammation and/or bloating. This mild discomfort totally disappeared when I wasn’t drinking alcohol. I noticed any bloat was non-existent. As an added bonus, my abs started to look a little more defined.
Week three: I felt less puffy all over and could push more at harder intensities.
By week three, I noticed visible results. My abs were more defined, I was less bloated, and my face felt less puffy (especially in the mornings). I did see some difference in how I looked, it’s worth noting that alcohol elimination is not a magic cure, says Dr. Lyon. “In terms of body composition, we really have to think about calorie control and exercise,” she explains. “Having alcohol in moderation isn’t going to be the thing that crushes your body composition.” I really felt like I looked more toned through my mid-section after two full weeks with no alcohol.
I also noticed that by the third week, my overall energy levels were higher. “Alcohol is essentially a toxin to the body, and the body is going to prioritize getting rid of it,” says Dr. Lyon. That means if you have a couple drinks, your body focuses on detoxification rather than processing nutrient dense foods, she adds.
Now, of course there are still days where I feel sore and/or tired. However after not drinking, I noticed a shift in my ability to maintain a steady intensity during an hour-long training session. When I ran on the treadmill, I was more energized and didn’t need to slow down like i might after a night of drinks. In CorePower, I spent more energy on the actual training and holding the poses, rather than trying to cool down and catch my breath in the heat.
Finally, at the end of week three, I started to hit a new level of strength at Solidcore. At the beginning of each class you typically hold a plank variation for about five minutes (I know, it’s as hard as it sounds). But instead of compromising form or taking a short rest, I was able to maintain the plank the entire time. Now, I know I’m getting stronger and building muscle after consistently attending classes, but I do think the lack of alcohol played a role and allowed me to push myself physically and mentally.
My Biggest Takeaways
1. Alcohol really does impact sleep.
I know studies prove that alcohol has a negative effect on sleep quality, but I’m here to tell you it’s true. Without alcohol I was able to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. In the mornings I felt more rested, which improved my workouts and overall functioning for the day ahead. My energy levels increased, I was more alert, and I felt powerful in training. (Own your morning in action.)
2. Drinking is not the life of the party.
There were definitely times I would have enjoyed a drink, but it didn’t ruin my experience at social activities. In fact, without alcohol, I was more present. Whether I was at dinner, out with friends, or at a holiday event, sticking to water and seltzer allowed me to enjoy the moment without any added enhancements or distractions. Can alcohol be fun and social? Absolutely. Is it necessary to have fun and be social? No.
3. I hit new levels of strength training.
I don’t want to give the lack of alcohol all the credit, because I do train hard. I did level up my strength during the three booze-free weeks. I was resting less between reps and sets, and I was able to maintain proper form longer. After each training sesh I felt strong, proud, and confident. Not to mention, the “ah-ha” moment that you’re getting stronger is pretty rewarding.
4. I felt real benefits, but my experience was not life changing.
I wasn’t a big drinker to begin with, but honestly, my sober three weeks were nothing crazy… literally and figuratively. I did have some rewards that I will definitely keep in mind (my sleep schedule was the biggest game changer), but I don’t think I would eliminate alcohol for good.
As a 24-year-old, I do enjoy and appreciate the occasional drink in a social setting. And that’s okay. “The big message is that it’s a personal choice whether an individual drinks or not,” says Dr. Lyon. “It’s important to not create fear around alcohol, and if someone is going to drink, they should drink smart.”
Ultimately, I don’t have any regrets after this challenge and would absolutely encourage others to experiment and find what works for them. I do have a refreshed mindset about alcohol and the impact it has on my workouts, body composition, and overall well-being, but from here, I will stick to drinking smart in moderation.
Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based writer and graduate student at Northwestern Medill. She’s a mass consumer of social media and cares about women’s rights, holistic wellness, and non-stigmatizing reproductive care. As a former collegiate pole vaulter, she has a love for all things fitness and is currently obsessed with Peloton Tread workouts and hot yoga.