Can Beer Improve Your Run Time?

That’s the title of this article appearing recently on which purports to answer the question with a solid yes.  The article is flying around the beer running blogosphere and I’m as interested as the next guy in promoting craft beer alongside a healthy activity like running.  Unfortunately, the article raises more questions than it answers. 

The article is based on a study by a German University which followed 277 participants of the 2009 Munich Marathon for three weeks prior and two weeks after the marathon to study the effect of polyphenols found in wheat beer, “a type of beer popular with marathoners and tri-athletes.”   The study noted that marathon runners experience a suppressed immune system after running a marathon, opening the door for viruses and illnesses.  According to the article, the study found that “Beer drinkers experience a greater support for the immune system; Beer drinkers experienced fewer colds; and Beer drinkers who experienced colds had shorter, more mild infections than the abstainers.”  That would certainly be good news.

But here’s where my inquiring mind takes over.  The 277 participants were separated into two groups. One group was given up to 1.5 liters of non-alcoholic wheat beer each day and the other group was given something that closely mimicked a wheat beer, but lacked the polyphenols found in the non-alcoholic wheat beer.

So are we studying polyphenols or are we studying beer?  Has anyone studied the difference between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beer?  Is there evidence that beer with alcohol would delver the same benefits? What about non-wheat beers?  Who knew wheat beer was popular with marathoners and tri-athetes? 

The article draws the conclusion it’s okay to throw back a few beers in the midst of training and runners should “look at your beer as a training tool.”  I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade and am certainly all for mixing beer and running (usually not at the same time).  Yet, does the study really say this?  After all, the conclusions, as paraphrased by the article’s author, pertain solely to an improved immune system response after the severe physical demands of a marathon. No doubt, we’re all searching for the right combination of nutrition and hydration to help performance and recovery.  My preference is to get my recovery protein and carbs from some other source (especially since beer lacks protein) and grab a beer for the pure enjoyment of it. If the beer happens to helps my immune system, great.

Here’s what I want to know:  Are polyphenols only found in wheat beer? Are they present in other types of beer? Do some beers have higher concentrations? Why did the researchers use non-alcoholic beer?  Is it possible an alcoholic version negates the benefits?  These are questions the article’s author should be asking. That’s the kind of info that would be useful. 

In tracing the info back to its source, it’s clear the article took a few liberties with the information presented in the press release from the authors of the study. The press release makes it clear the study* answers only whether drinking Non-alcoholic Erdinger wheat beer, “chosen for its rich and varied polyphenol content” has a positive effect on the body’s immune system.  Extrapolating the findings to other non-alcoholic beverages containing high polyphenols** might make sense. Extrapolating the findings to “beer” in general doesn’t jive.

From my personal experience, I have no idea whether drinking beer has a positive effect on running or my immune system.  I know for certain that beer can totally wreck my running. I’ve managed to sabotage a couple of long runs thanks to having a couple too many the night before. Perhaps I should have tried a non-alcoholic*** wheat beer instead. But then again, that’s not really craft beer, now is it?

* More information on the study can be found here.

** Admittedly, I have no idea what a polyphenol is.

*** Non-alcoholic beer actually isn’t. It starts out as regular beer and then the alcohol is removed via either reverse osmosis or vacuum distillation.  A small (0.5% or less) amount of alcohol remains.