Olympic trainer shares research with team Malmstrom

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Dillon White
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
If you drink five to 10 beers on a Friday or Saturday, does it slow you down on the track and in the classroom on Monday? 

According to John Underwood, president and founder of the American Athletic Institute, heavy weekend drinking can undermine training efforts and affect a person well into the next week. 

As part of Alcohol Awareness Month, the Health and Wellness Center and Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws Coalition sponsored a presentation conducted by Mr. Underwood at Malmstrom. 

"His presentation is unlike anything out there," said Kelley Suggs, HAWC health and education program manager. "Everyone always tells people not to drink, but no one ever says why. Mr. Underwood explains exactly why, in ways that are pertinent to our Airmen." 

The target population for the studies AAI has performed is people whose mental and physical performance is absolutely critical for what they do, Mr. Underwood said. 

"We give people better information about physiology so they can make better decisions," he said. "That's what it's all about." 

AAI is the first organization to do scientific studies on the residual effects of alcohol and how long those effects last on athletes. 

Mr. Underwood is an international-level distance runner who has also coached 28 Olympic athletes to include five medalists. 

The former NCAA All-American described the three reasons why the studies were important. 

"Individuals use social drugs such as alcohol at levels that affect physical and mental performance. Secondly, alcohol is implicated in nearly everything that can happen to you in a negative vein and get you in trouble you can't get out of," he said. "Last but not least, you chose this life and [Airmen] have responsibilities that go above and beyond most of the general population. Other people's lives depend on you." 

Alcohol is a metabolic poison and it affects every system in the body simultaneously, Mr. Underwood said. 

Blood alcohol content peaks between 30 minutes and two hours after a person has their last drink, depending on how many drinks they have. 

In an AAI study, some individuals who drank 10 beers had measurable amounts of alcohol in their systems for up to 19 hours. 

"If a metabolic poison is in your system for 19 hours, there will be a severe impact," he said. "Up to 12 hours after intoxication, the blood alcohol content may remain at levels associated with legal intoxication, so not only do you have a hangover and struggle all day, you're still drunk." 

The following are all factors to take into consideration before going out to socialize with friends on the weekend.

Safe levels 

A person who drinks heavily and drives home the next day can be stopped by the police and still considered intoxicated. 

Some people may believe energy drinks counteract the effects of alcohol, Mr. Underwood said. The use of energy drinks in addition to alcohol actually worsens the situation because people can not perceive how impaired they really are. 

"Is there a safe level of social drug use with alcohol?" he asked. "Absolutely, it's one to two drinks." 

There is no measurable physiological effect when one to two drinks are consumed at a rate of one drink per hour. There is, however, a greater residual effect with drinks containing higher concentrations of alcohol such as liquor. 

"People think a drink is a drink," Mr. Underwood said. "A beer is not the same as a shot physiologically." 

Mr. Underwood described alcohol's detrimental effect on brain activity using images of radioactive isotope scans as well. 

"If you binge drink regularly, you become someone who operates at a fraction of your potential," he said. 


During eight hours of sleep, the central nervous system receives only one-and-a-half to two hours of rest, known as rapid eye movement. When a person drinks three to four drinks, this REM sleep cycle is interrupted. 

"When the body registers a metabolic poison, the brain will not shut down, resulting in only 30 to 40 minutes of REM sleep," he said. "You feel shell-shocked and groggy the next day." 

AAI performed a sleep study on Stanford University basketball players and found those players who received adequate rest out-shot and out-performed those who did not. 

"Simple things make big things happen," Mr. Underwood said. "If you want to feel good, be able to perform, or do well on a test, then get an adequate amount of rest." 


Athletes who drink heavily are injured twice as often as those who do not. 

"If you know anything about statistics, the correlation is way too big to blow it off," Mr. Underwood said. "The number-one day for injuries in all sports is Monday. An athlete can play a game on Saturday, drink the same night then be hungover Sunday, come back to practice Monday and get blown away." 

The immune system 

Athletes have weaker immune systems than non-athletes. 

"When you are in your best possible physical shape, you are the most susceptible to two things - injury and sickness," Mr. Underwood said. 

The body's core temperature rises during exercise, then lowers and stabilizes for two hours. Following that, the body's temperature drops in what is referred to as the postprandial dip. 

"For 12 hours after exercise, you're really susceptible to getting sick," said Mr. Underwood. Alcohol decreases the immune system's capability, said Mr. Underwood. 

"If you drink, you're sick more often. If you exercise, you're sick more often. If you do both, you're sick all the time," Mr. Underwood said. 


Airmen are familiar with the motto "Fit to Fight" and are required to maintain a base level of physical fitness. 

"You don't just train and get in good shape," Mr. Underwood said. "You train, recover from the stress of exercise, and then get in better shape." 

The main hormone males and females use for training is testosterone. Testosterone repairs muscle fiber, increases brain function and memory, physical performance, metabolic rate, bone and muscle mass, bolsters the immune system, counters stress, raises pain tolerance and reduces the perception of fatigue. 

"The moment a person starts training, their body produces more testosterone, even if they are in horrible shape," Mr. Underwood said. 

Testosterone levels peak at the age of 23, then decline, making it harder to stay in shape, he said. 

"When you do physical work, you release hormones and following the exercise, levels go way down," Mr. Underwood said. "After 24 hours of rest, hormone levels return to normal." 

In the first hour after exercise, recovery is at 70 percent. Eight hours after exercise, hormone levels are at 90 percent, and at 24 hours, the body is at 100 percent again.
Drinking alcohol interrupts this recovery. 

"Alcohol affects testosterone levels in one way," Mr. Underwood said. "They go down. If you drink heavily, you don't get the final 30 percent, so you can not gain or maintain physical condition. You're wasting your effort." 

Some males who drink heavily and regularly have testosterone levels as low as females, Mr. Underwood said. 

Muscle mass is destroyed by the stress hormone cortisol, which is released by mental or physical stress. 

"When you have cortisol in your system when you train, it tears down muscle physiology," Mr. Underwood said. "Physical stress is the worst, but right there with physical stress is alcohol." 

When people drink and train, their cortisol is always high, their testosterone level is always low, and they are unable to do work. 

"As you age and have cortisol in your system, you get body fat around your mid-section, cortisol deposits fat on your mid-section and there is no way to block it," Mr. Underwood said. 

Human growth hormone, the second hormone responsible for repairing muscle fiber is released while sleeping between approximately 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. 

"If you drink heavily, HGH levels are reduced by 70 percent. HGH maintains the amount of muscle mass your body keeps on its frame, and lets you burn fat and carbohydrates as a fuel." 

For an example of the loss to training through drinking heavily, an Olympic athlete participating in an AAI study physically trained for fourteen days and made no gains after drinking a gallon of beer on each weekend of the study. 

Blood sugar 

Blood glucose levels are disrupted by alcohol as well. 

"Your brain and muscle runs off of blood sugar levels. If you didn't eat breakfast this morning, you can't concentrate, focus and feel shaky," Mr. Underwood said. "In the same way, if you go on a drinking binge, your blood sugar levels can be messed up for six to 36 hours." 

The rise and fall of blood sugar levels result in a hangover. 

"You have to elevate your blood sugar by consuming fructose or glucose before you do mental or physical work to fuel your muscles and brain," he said. The AAI found most people have borderline blood sugar levels when they begin to do physical work." 

Diuretic effect 

Heavy drinking causes dehydration and a person can lose about 180 ounces of water in a night of heavy drinking, said Mr. Underwood. 

"It takes eight ounces of internal fluids to metabolize one drink, so you lose that too," he said. "Water soluble vitamins including B vitamins are flushed out of your body. One of the most critical vitamins is B5, or Pantothenic Acid, which is the catalyst for turning hormone precursors into hormones such as testosterone." 

Think about the time you put into your job, think about the quality of your life and who you spend your time with, said Mr. Underwood. 

"People need to think about what's important." 

For more information on the physiological effects of social drug use, go to http://www.americanathleticinstitute.org/