In the pursuit of perfect homebrew, failure still makes beer.

Beer and Strenuous Marathon Exercise: The Magic of Polyphenols

Nerdsday Thursday is back in action. Looking for a little over-the-top, evidence-based science on why you should drink beer? You’ve come to the right place today. Who ever wants to cut out beer while training for a marathon? A recent study states that drinking beer might actually increase your chances for a healthier marathon experience. 

Anyone who has trained for and/or run a marathon will undoubtedly agree that it is one of the most strenuous exercise events you can participate in. From beginners to professional runners, marathon running requires your muscles to be in top shape, your respiratory and circulatory systems to work in overdrive, and your mental state to be iron-clad. Although I hope to run a marathon someday, I’m still working up to that point – albeit with 5Ks, 10Ks, and 10-mile adventure races through mud, ice, and electricity.

Diet is, seriously, one of the biggest parts of marathon training and running in general. Putting high-quality fuel in the tank allows your body to burn cleaner energy more efficiently. So, though many schools of thought exist on how to eat for your marathon (see: Runner’s World Magazine), the vast majority of them suggest increasing your veggies and fruits. It seems like common knowledge that eating plants is generally healthier for you than throwing down a chihuahua-sized burrito. But, the truth of it is that fruits and vegetables are sources of high-quality complex carbohydrates which are collectively your body’s afterburner jet-fuel – they are burned quickly and cleanly, leaving minimal non-nutritional traces behind, unlike refined sugars and corn syrups which are burned like diesel fuel and push nutritional “smog” through your veins (1).

Gallic acid, a common polyphenol. Isn’t is neato?

Another benefit of being herbivorous  is that fruits and veggies have “antioxidant properties.” In other words, they contain natural chemicals of a family called “polyphenols” that are fantastic antioxidants, antiinflammitory, and antipathogenic (germ killers) (2). And we’ve all heard the studies stating that veggie eaters have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer – given, that doesn’t stop us from chowing down on funnel cake at the beach (3).

So what does this have to do with beer? Guess what other miracle beverage contains a plethora of polyphenols? You guessed it. Beer is actually a major contributor to dietary polyphenolic intake, at 366-875 mg/L of beer (4). These phenolics are also more rapidly absorbed than those in vegetables and fruits (5). Woohoo for beer!

Given this background information, a research team from Technisch Universitaet Munechen in Munich, Germany hypothesized that drinking up to 1.5L of non-alcoholic beer would improve post-marathon health (6). This included the presence of IL-6, an inflammatory protein, the presence of upper-respiratory tract infection (UTRI), and general immune system health identified by white blood cell count.

They “hired” over 300 male participants who were running the 2009 Munich Marathon and subjected them to either a non-alcoholic beer diet or a control-beverage diet of at least 1L per day, 3 weeks prior to and 2 weeks post race. They took blood samples for analysis, as well as monitored their health via telephone and survey for 2 weeks after the race.

The results were pretty awesome.

Marathon runners had lower inflammation immediately post-race if they drank beer for 3 weeks before running.

Immediately after the race, the group that drank real beer had a lower IL-6 level than those who drank the control drink. Shortly, drinking beer while training for a marathon decreased post-race inflammation.

Runners drinking beer for 2 weeks post marathon had a lower incidence of respiratory infection.

2 weeks after the race, the group that continued to drink real beer showed a lower incidence of UTRI. This meant that drinking beer while training for  a marathon improved respiratory recovery and battled viral/bacterial infection.

Dr. Scherr was interviewed in 2011 by the New York Times and defended his findings:

These effects matter, said Dr. Johannes Scherr, lead author of the study, because if a marathon runner’s body is less sore and inflamed after a race, and he doesn’t develop the sniffles, he can recover and return to training more quickly than he otherwise might have been able to. “It can be speculated that the training frequency could be higher (with shorter breaks after vigorous training sessions)” in those drinking beer, he wrote in an e-mail response.

Alcoholic beer is, in fact, higher in these magic polyphenolics than non-alcoholic beer. The positive effect of polyphenols may be cancelled out by the effect of the beverage’s alcohol content, although this has not been shown in research as of yet.

For this reason, my idea is that during strenuous marathon training, you can still drink beer at session-strength, or generally below 4.5% ABV. There are tons of awesome craft session breweries out there, including Full Sail Session Lagers, Notch Brewing, as well as session features by other breweries including 21st Amendment Better American and New Belgium Shift. These beers are flavorful while not knocking you on your ass, and would still allow you to get the full benefit of the polyphenol bill. Case closed.

So, if you’re an exercize fanatic, don’t feel like you need to cut out beer completely while training. Obviously, don’t go overboard, and don’t drink past the point where the benefits of beer are lost to drunken consumption. Session beers are better than resorting to drinking Mic Ultras or Miller 64 while training.

If you’d like to read the whole journal article, email me and I’ll send it to you.

Cheers, and Happy Nerdsday Thursday!


  1. “What are High-Quality Carbohydrates?”
  2. Heinonen M. Antioxidant Activity and antimicrobial effect of berry phenolics – a Finnish perspective. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007; 51:684-91
  3. Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of cardiovascular disease in US adults: the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Epidemiologic Followup Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76:93-9
  4. Piazzon A, Forte M, Nardini M. Characterizaion of phenolics content and antioxidant activity of different beer types. J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58:10677-83
  5. Ghiselli A, Natella F, Guidi A, Montanari L, Fantozzi P, Saccini C. Beer increases Plasma antioxidant capacity in humans. J Nutr Biochem. 2000;11:76-80
  6. Scherr J, Nieman DC, Schuster T, Habermann J, Rank M, Braun S, Pressler A, Wolfarth B, Halle M. Nonalcoholic beer reduces inflammation and incidence of respiratory tract illness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Jan;44(1):18-26.

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