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My long-awaited 21st birthday has finally arrived! Bring on the drinking, clubbing, and late-night partying, right? WRONG. More like bring on the early bedtimes, healthy meals, and 6 a.m. Saturday long runs.

As much as I’ve looked forward to finally turning 21 — since my fiance and his friends have been of legal age since we started dating — I’m looking forward more so to crossing a finish line in October and to crossing off another item from my running bucket list. To get to that point, I’ll be training for 18 weeks, and that training begins just three days after my birthday. The training will require sleep and a healthy diet — two things that not most 21-year-old women plan on having a lot of on the weekends following their 21st birthdays.

I’m going to let myself enjoy tonight, though, mostly because my fiance has insisted that I have a “proper” 21st birthday experience. (He refused to let me sign up for a 10k tomorrow morning. Sad, I know.) But after tonight, the binge drinking — I suggested 21 shots to celebrate 21 years — has to end.

turning 21

According to Runner’s World, moderate drinking is typically fine for runners. That glass of red wine has antioxidants after all. But what does moderate mean? For women it means one drink a day, and for men it means two. Hit three or more servings a day and you’re asking for trouble. In fact, studies have shown that three or more drinks a day actually increases your mortality rate.

But alcohol isn’t all bad; it has some benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked:

  • potentially reduced risk of death
  • antioxidants and polyphenols that protect against cancer
  • increased HDL cholesterol levels (the good cholesterol)
  • reduction of blood clots

Still, overall, alcohol can decrease performance because it impacts the body’s energy supply. It seems as though the benefits — for athletes in particular — just aren’t worth the negative effects:

  • needless calories that eventually are transformed into fat (stick with your chews and gels instead)
  • inhibits the GI tract, disrupting the absorption of major vitamins and minerals (as if runners need any more GI issues)
  • dehydrates, therefore impeding the recovery process
  • dilates the blood vessels, making muscle soreness last longer (those dreaded ice baths do the exact opposite, constricting swollen blood vessels)

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So where does all the information leave a runner who imbibes now and again? Haven’t we all been to races where we’re way too excited to cross that finish line and cash in our free beer coupon?

It’s okay to drink in moderation, but the word “moderation” is key. Just like a runner isn’t going to eat dessert every night — at least I hope not — a runner should probably avoid drinking every night. But one slice of cake or one drink to reward tons of hard work is totally okay! The brain needs that type of positive reinforcement and the occasional break from an otherwise healthy diet.

Just be mindful of where you are in your training cycle. The week before a big race, you’ll want to monitor your diet and fill your body with foods high in vitamins and minerals. So maybe that’s not the best time to be hitting up your favorite happy hours, but after the race don’t feel bad about rewarding yourself with a glass or two. Just make sure to match each glass of alcohol with a glass of water to ensure that you’re staying hydrated enough for recovery.

Me? I like to stick to no more than three drinks a week. Any more than that and I feel guilty and bloated (though, I think the bloated part is all in my head). I definitely won’t be missing out on happy hours now that I’m of age, but I plan to only have one drink while there. Just one drink still makes for a good time, especially if you bring along people who you like well enough when sober.

So, fellow runners, raise that one glass to me as I celebrate 21 years of life. I fit my long run in this morning, instead, knowing that I may not feel the best tomorrow morning. But I’m banking on that being the only hangover of the summer because I have more important things to do … like RUN!

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