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Abstaining From Alcohol: Reflections From My Year Without Beer


Non-alcoholic brew by Athletic Brewing
Non-alcoholic brew by Athletic Brewing


If you're drunk on life babe,

I think it's great.

But while in this world,


I think I'll take my whiskey neat.

My coffee black and my bed at three.

-Hozier, "Too Sweet"



Today marks three hundred and sixty-five days since my last alcoholic drink. It was an unremarkable last drink-- a free beer furnished by the Airbnb I was in, just outside of Larabee State Park in Bellingham, Washington, where the Chuckanut 50K happens each year.


Alcohol has occupied quite a lot of headspace for me over the last two or three years. It's not that I ever had a problem with it; most of my friends and family would have classified me as a moderate drinker, at most. But last summer, halfway down the Oyster Dome trail, I resolved to drop alcohol from my life for awhile, at the time unsure how long that meant.


In this post, I share my experience over this past year for anybody that has wondered about the influence of alcohol in their own life. I have no agenda, in terms of whether you, or anyone, should drink or not. You live your life, and it's nobody else's business how you choose to live it as far as I'm concerned.


If I have any agenda, it's only to make sure that we're active participants that indeed have chosen how we want to live, rather than just being swept along by the current of our society.



Why?


Shortly after I made the choice to go alcohol-free, I started working on my coaching certification in Endurance Sports Nutrition. One of the things that hit home during the cert was the module on "Stages of Change" that typically apply to any major lifestyle change we choose to make, but in this context it was particularly focused on dietary changes. The Stages of Change were striking because I suddenly saw how I'd gone through them with alcohol without even realizing it was happening. Here's how I arrived at the goal of abstaining from alcohol, in the context of the six Stages of Change:


Pre-contemplation

Four years ago, as a light-to-moderate drinker, I had little regard for alcohol. I didn't much consider how it affected my training as it was (and is still) pretty normal to be able to train effectively as a light-to-moderate drinker.


Contemplation

About three years ago, as I was getting much more serious about coaching, training, and the science behind it all, I started to consider if there would be a day when I felt I should stop drinking in order to help my progression as an athlete. I sort of slid up the scale over the course of two years, being pretty clear on many good reasons to stop consuming alcohol by the end of this phase.


Preparation

I first gave "alcohol-free" a whirl in Fall 2022 for a couple of months.


Relapse

Even in the couple of months without alcohol, I became very aware of the social pressures that exist in the U.S. It's uncomfortable to go against the grain, and I would be concerned also that other people would feel I was passing judgment on their decision to drink if I made a different one. As a result, I went from strictly abstaining to more infrequent alcohol consumption, and all during this period, felt clear that drinking was no longer in alignment with my core values. I would eventually pull the plug.


Action

June 22, 2023 I made the decision with conviction to stop drinking. I did not share that goal with anyone outside of my partner for several months, but just politely declined in situations where others were drinking.


Maintenance

Where I am now. The benefit of committing to a year is that it gets easier with time and experience, as you learn how to handle the impact to social dynamics and such.


In many ways, I've come to see alcohol as a commonly used crutch. Ease social anxiety, bury life stresses, and find chemically-aided "happiness". You'll never get better at handling these things, without the help of a drug, if you don't start trying.



The Social Element


Alcohol dynamics in our society proved a harder thing to overcome than I thought. I have heard others say this, and remember it being a key point in ultra runner and recovering alcoholic, Brendan Leonard's book, 60 Meters to Anywhere. I was sort of put through the wringer in this regard, with three weddings to attend through late summer and early fall. Some were more boozy than others. But the truth is, nobody else really cares if you toast with water instead of champagne. If they did and asked me about it, I aimed to give an honest and direct answer about how I was just taking a break from alcohol to see what it was like. I worked to say things in a way that would not lead others to think that I passed any judgment on those who are drinking. The shift was for me, about me only, and reflects zero on the choices of anyone else.


Like anything, a change like this can be done without support, but is a lot easier with it. My partner came along for the ride, abstaining from alcohol at a lot of the big events.



Non-alcoholic Alternatives


Historically, I've been a fan of craft beer, which is a huge industry in the mountain west where I live. For the longest time, I wasn't interested in quitting alcohol because breweries make up a lot of the cool spaces to hang out with friends here, and were an interesting way to explore new areas when I was traveling. This remains a feature that I have missed over the last year. Small and independent craft breweries do not have the resources to devote to non-alcoholic (NA) options.


Non-alcoholic alternatives to beer, wine, and even liquors are gaining steam in the market, but it is clear that there is still a way to go. I tried these things largely out of curiosity. NA beverages have a reputation for being pretty far off from the real thing, and my experience is that this remains very true for wine and NA liquors, but that NA beer is hitting an inflection point with more businesses entering the space with creative and quality products. I'll go months without even an NA beverage, but have found Athletic Brewing and Stella Artois 0.0% as enjoyable substitutes for their alcohol-containing counterparts.



Group of runners before a marathon

Training and Performance


That's the ultimate question, isn't it? What degree of elite-level fitness was I immediately bestowed upon removing alcohol from my diet?


None to report. I trained a lot before, and I trained a lot after. I saw little change in my own training capacity, and no magical new speed. I did run two very long races during this period of abstinence, but do not believe alcohol was a defining factor in my ability to endure. I would bet I had less crummy runs and groggy mornings, even if just a few less, as a result of alcohol elimination.


The strongest relationships I have are with the people that I am active with. I have known for a while that the people I get out for a run, hike, bike, climb with are the people I keep close. Removing alcohol was an excuse to double-down on something else in my life that gave me way more joy than the drug ever did.



Looking to the Future


"I aim low,

I aim true

and the ground's where I'll go"

(Hozier)



Do I feel better physically after a year of no alcohol? I've heard a lot of people like me, with no history of dependence, answer this question with a resounding yes. I tend to think it's a bad question that, without fail, yields a biased answer. If you set a goal to go a year without alcohol, and succeed in doing so, then you're going to feel good about your success at the end of that year. Whether the presence of the chemical in your body (or lack thereof) has much to do with that feeling, is a hard thing to untangle.


I wouldn't say I personally feel like a completely different person as a result of cutting alcohol from my life. If you were to ask me if I will drink again, my answer would be that I don't know. I do know and respect the science that has clearly shown the negative impacts of alcohol to inflammation and sleep quality (as well as other things), but truthfully, inflammation and sleep disturbances aren't unique to alcohol. Getting up early and traveling across time zones will affect your sleep, and inflammation is an accepted part of life as an athlete. That said, no coach would say that reducing those disturbances to your sleep quality and inflammation levels isn't a good thing for health and performance.



Exercise: Be Intentional


As I alluded to at the start of this post, I think the important thing is being intentional about how we choose to live, rather than just doing what we think everyone else is doing. That is how we all find the most fulfillment in our lives. The truth is that life is fleeting and at some level you have to enjoy the present. Omitting alcohol is in large part justified by what it means for your long-term health, but the quality and enjoyment of those years matter as well. With that in mind, I leave you with two facts and three questions that I hope help you better define where alcohol fits into your life:



  • Alcohol is appreciated (in Western societies) largely for how it affects enjoyment of the present moment.


  • Alcohol offers no benefit to long-term health, and may be detrimental to long-term health.


So:


  • How much enjoyment does alcohol add to your life?


  • Is there anything else that you could emphasize in your life that might offer the same amount of (or more) enjoyment?


  • For you, what does the proper balance look like between enjoyment of the present, and safeguarding a healthy future?




Join the movement and realize your potential.

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3 Comments


Guest
Jul 06

Yes, I appreciate you sharing your alcohol free experience. I am unsure of your age. However, as we age (I'm 67 yo) alcohol, even with light to moderate use, has much more effect on our physiology and performance without any clear health benefits. Thus, at this point in my life benefits of not drinking out weight effects effects of alcohol on sleep, health, weight and general sense of feeling healthy.

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Greg Marshall
Greg Marshall
Jul 09
Replying to

Thanks for sharing your experience! Indeed, the science is clear that at any age, alcohol has detrimental effects for health, at very least in an acute sense, and sometimes in a chronic sense depending on frequency of use. I'd never argue against the evidence, but the message I hoped to convey with this piece is more about deciding if or how frequently alcohol use is worth the short term benefit for any individual. We all have to make our own decisions in regards to how much we prioritize short term enjoyment with respect to our long-term health.

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Guest
Jun 22

Nice piece Greg. I really enjoyed it and have spent a lot of time thinking about it myself. Be lying if I didn't say I wished you saw more of a performance improvement. That's the risk/reward calculus I run through. But eiether way, great piece. Nice voice. Well done.

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