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The Reward Cycle Could Explain Triathlon’s Drinking Problem

Endurance athletes may be at greater risk for alcohol use disorder. Why?

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Whether we’d like to admit it or not, triathlon has a drinking problem. It’s hard to believe, and even harder to spot in the endurance sport community—so much of what we do is geared toward achieving fitness, high performance, and health. However, my recent research on 524 endurance athletes showed that although a little over 5% of the participants were in recovery from substance abuse, 17% showed signs that they were at risk for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). To put this in perspective, in the general population of the US only about 4% of people are at risk for AUD. While there are many reasons why we might have a higher prevalence of alcohol abuse in our community, some specifics of the triathlete mindset could be at play.

One triathlete’s “all or nothing” struggle

Stacey Jones has always been strict about her alcohol intake in the month before a big race. “I cut everything out, 100%. I know I sleep better and that helps my recovery. It can be hard to cut out all drinks, but I know that it’s all over once I hit the finish line.” She would often pack a few bottles of beer in a cooler for after the race and then meet some friends for dinner with more drinks later on. “It was all part of the race experience for me. I worked hard. The reward of an adult beverage felt great.” But, Jones found that one night of celebration inevitably turned into a whole weekend of boozing. It could even extend into drinking every night during the next week since she wouldn’t be getting up early to train. “After a while it wasn’t just big races, I needed a drink after any big training session. Then it wasn’t really the big sessions, but the standard ones, too.” She decided to take a step away from drinking when she realized that she could only swim, bike, or run if she could also look forward to a drink.

It would be easy to write Jones’ experience off as just another failed attempt at moderation, but if we take a step back, there could be a much more complex mechanism at work here. It all starts with how even if you’re not a triathlete, the brain loves to get a reward.

RELATED: Going All In Led Me to Endurance Sports—And Alcohol Abuse

Cheers to dopamine!

It was all the way back in the 1950s when scientists were able to show how certain brain structures light up when rats received a stimulus, but we now know that the mesolimbic-dopaminergic system is responsible for many of our reward-seeking behaviors like planning, motivating ourselves, and even becoming addicted. Actions like exercising, eating, and having sex will activate the pathway, cause the release of dopamine, and tell us to repeat that action to get more of that powerful, feel-good neurotransmitter. In short, our brain’s reward mechanism teaches us how to seek out both activities and substances that will help bring on happiness.

In the case of triathletes who like to celebrate a hard effort with alcohol, it’s easy to see how the reward effects are multiplied. Both the exercise and alcohol consumption on their own would release dopamine, but the fact that we connect the training or racing with the alcohol means that we’ve taught ourselves to expect one activity to lead to the other. Before you know it, athletes like Jones can’t figure out if they’re more excited for the training or the tequila.

RELATED: How Much Alcohol Consumption is OK For Your Health?

A break in momentum: bad for the bike, great for bad habits

The good news is that the connection between the two activities can be viewed as a habit–and to a certain extent, habits can be broken. The mere fact of becoming aware that you may have been on autopilot can help you to mindfully question whether or not you really want the drink. Asking yourself if you’re drinking because it’s just what you always do is a great place to start. Some people might find that what they actually crave is a way to celebrate their race finish and some other activity might be an adequate substitute. Going for a fancy dinner or shopping for a new pair of running shoes could mark the occasion, without the hangover. Some athletes might need a bit more reinforcement and find that they prefer to skip the pub runs and tailgating altogether.

RELATED: How to Build Better Habits That Actually Stick

The number of sober athletes is growing

It is true that the triathlon community creates plenty of opportunities to reinforce the connection between training and drinking, but you don’t have to drink to be a part of the triathlon community. Even USA Triathlon is now sponsored by Athletic Brewing Company, a non-alcoholic beer. Many athletes choose to be sober and not all of them would identify as making that choice because of a drinking problem. More and more people have discovered that they don’t need to be an alcoholic to stop drinking and simply like the feeling of abstaining. The only thing that matters is the athlete’s recognition that they are not happy with the way they may have been rewarding their efforts and their desire to try something different.

If you find that you are unable to stop drinking despite your awareness, if you find yourself increasing training to compensate for the amount of drinking you’ve done or intend to do, or if the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s fact sheet on alcohol use disorder hits a bit too close to home, it might be time to seek support. This may come in the form of therapy, a support group, or a treatment facility (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline can help you find resources local to you). And, if you decide that there simply might be a better way to reward all of your hard work, consider whether a massage might make you feel better than a martini. It might be just the prize you need.

RELATED: Trying for a Dry January? Here’s How to Pull it Off

Mixing up your risk with your reward? These behaviors might mean it’s time to take a step back from drinking.

  • Automatically having a drink after races and/or training “just because”
  • Planning training sessions around drinking and vice versa
  • Drinking when you said you were going to abstain due to health or performance concerns
  • Frequently hungover while training (vomiting and risking dangerous dehydration, etc.)
  • Missing training sessions due to drinking or missing personal appointments due to post-race reward drinking
  • Driving while intoxicated to get back home
  • Swimming in open water or putting yourself in risky situations while intoxicated

RELATED: Mental Health Resources for Triathletes

Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner. 

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