Trying for a Dry January? Here’s How to Pull It Off
Dry January has caught on among triathletes seeking a detox from the overindulgence of the holidays and a jumpstart to the new year (and season).
You’ve probably seen or heard it referenced on Instagram and Facebook posts, as a trending article you scroll past, or that thing your friend keeps talking about when you get together: Dry January. No, not “dry” like avoiding the pool. “Dry” like no alcohol—for the month of January.
A movement that started in the U.K. in 2012, Dry January has caught on among those seeking a detox from the overindulgence of the holidays and a jumpstart to the new year (and season). It’s become particularly popular among fitness enthusiasts and athletes, who have said they see a number of health and performance benefits from the period of abstinence, and from the potential for a longer-term decrease in alcohol consumption.
But what are those benefits? And should you join in?
Health Benefits of Alcohol Abstinence
- Reduced blood pressure
- Better sleep
- Better brain function
- Reduced headaches
- Stronger immune system
- Better skin
- Reduced diabetes risk
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower cancer risk
- Better liver and kidney function
- Improved VO2max
- Better training quality
- Lower body fat percentage
- Better adaptations to training
- Improved recovery
What the Science Says
To start with, this isn’t an article to tell you not to drink alcohol. That’s a choice for you to make. More than likely, you enjoy a glass of wine or two with dinner or a night out with friends, and there are plenty of reasons to do that. What we’re here to do is help you weigh the costs and benefits from a scientific perspective.
The reality is that alcohol does a number on your body. Long term, it damages tissues and creates a higher rate of cell mutation than normal. The result? Folks who drink less have lower cancer risk, and that increased risk becomes measurable at just a half glass per day for women and a glass per day for men. Five percent of breast cancer cases and 10% of colorectal cancer cases are linked to alcohol consumption.
Furthermore, even early stages of alcohol-induced liver fattening lead to much higher risk of high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction. Risk of diabetes increases too, as does high cholesterol.
When it comes to performance, well, none of those things are good for triathlon. Even in the short term, alcohol also increases body fat, reduces quality sleep, and hampers recovery. The good news is most of these things can be meaningfully reduced in very short order (read: one month or less). That’s partially what has led Dry January to grow from a niche British nonprofit campaign to such prominence.
It’s not just better blood sugar regulation, lower cancer rates, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. Want better sleep? Alcohol abstinence does that too, which is one reason that, when studied, subjects implementing alcohol abstinence for the month of January had better brain function and reduced headache frequency and intensity.
Let’s look at headaches, hydration, and blood pressure, as examples of how this works: Alcohol-induced diuresis means losing more water in your urine because the kidneys allow more fluid from the blood into your bladder. That reduces blood volume. This drying out of your blood is also known as dehydration. Drying out your blood is just about as endurance performance–hampering as anything imaginable. Blood volume reduction directly reduces cardiac output and VO2max. Why? Less blood to pump means less blood enters the heart, and less of a stretch across the heart muscle before it forcefully contracts. Dehydration and reduced blood volume can also contribute to headaches—not just worse performance in your next hard workout.
How could something possibly cause both acute dehydration and chronic high blood pressure? The short-term diuresis is caused by alcohol’s blocking of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). When the hormone is blocked, your kidneys are set free to produce urine. Lots of it. More urine production also means less blood volume.
Your body is a wonderful mix of homeostatic mechanisms, though, with everything working together to constantly adjust things up or down. When ADH is blocked by alcohol, your body’s homeostatic alarms go off. Over time, with regular alcohol consumption, your body learns to produce even more ADH, so that the kidneys can do their job and hang onto appropriate amounts of water, while alcohol invades the system. The problem here is that you then have too much of that hormone regularly floating around your bloodstream and blocking your kidneys from producing enough urine. The result: too much fluid in your body and increased blood pressure.
Of course, that’s not the only example of how your body reacts to alcohol. It also shuts down muscular repair processes at the cellular level, leading to reduced muscle mass, and provides empty calories that don’t act as performance fuel, leading to increased body fat.
The good news is these are acute effects and a period of abstinence—like Dry January—can immediately reverse course even for moderate drinkers.
Wait, How Many Drinks?
So how much alcohol exactly are we talking about? I mean, you’re a triathlete (or aspiring triathlete), you’re probably not a heavy drinker in the grand scheme of the world. What effect does a beer or glass of wine after dinner really have?
For many of the long-term health consequences—for instance, higher cancer risk—you can start to see statistical effects around three to five drinks per week for women and closer to seven drinks per week for men. For some of the short-term effects—poor sleep, higher resting heart rate and lower heart rate variability, and a raging headache—well, you’ve probably seen those for yourself after just one night.
Immediately after a hard workout, even a drink or two can have an effect as the metabolites produced by breaking down the alcohol increase the breaking down of the cell’s mitochondria and reduce protein synthesis and suppress glycogen synthesis.
A reminder here: One “drink” in academic lingo is approximately 1.5 ounces of spirits (roughly 80 proof), 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer. Heavy drinking is considered more than seven drinks per week for women or more than 14 drinks per week for men. That means it takes roughly half of what most health agencies refer to as heavy drinking to cause measurable increases in alcohol-related morbidities.
And that’s why some people decide to err on the side of caution and go completely dry for a month. If you use a fitness tracker or measure your resting heart rate each day, then you may be surprised to notice how much those recovery indicators reveal in just a few weeks.
If this is hitting home, then go for it. But if it doesn’t sound right for you, that’s OK. The health or performance benefits might be outweighed by any number of other reasons. The key is to be intentional. And that brings us to the next step: actually doing Dry January.
How to Successfully Do Dry January
We all know it’s one thing to have a goal on Jan. 1 and a totally different thing to still be hitting your targets on Jan. 27. Why? Because you respond to both positive and negative incentives, and because you’re not fully rational. (Sorry.)
What do we mean by incentives? Your kid is sick, you have a big deadline at work, and you’ve got 14 household tasks to conquer in as many minutes. Right then, a beer might sound like just the thing to hit the spot.
That’s why it’s important to have intentionality and a plan for when you get to that point. The good news is the booming non-alcoholic drinks market has caught on with Generation Z and a whole group of people looking to bring better health into their lives. That means there are more options (and more tasty options) than ever before—and when you tell friends you’re doing Dry January, odds are some of them will be too.
A few tips:
- Tell your closest friends or family about your goal.
- Set up logistics and plan for triggers. i.e., “I’ll avoid drinks at dinner” isn’t a plan. “I’ll order a non-alcoholic beer and politely explain that I’m avoiding alcohol right now” is a plan.
- Learn to cook better! Fill the drink-making time and energy with food-making time and energy.
- Focus on your “why.” Maybe it’s more of a mental why than a physical why, but know the reason you want to do this.
- Keep track of your progress along the way; you might see small success from a few good nights of improved sleep and a better workout or two.
- Don’t give up even if you slip up. If you have one beer or glass of wine, don’t berate yourself. Think about all the work you’ve still made toward your goals and get back on track—like when a workout goes badly, you don’t quit the sport, you regroup and restart.
- Try some of the alternative drink options below, or shake up one of these non-alcoholic cocktails or non-alcoholic beer picks.
Our Non-Alcoholic Picks for Dry January
Athletic Brewing Superfood Swell | $13/six-pack
In a booming non-alcoholic beer market, Athletic Brewing is the industry standard. Brewed specifically to be non-alcoholic (as opposed to removing the alcohol after brewing), Athletic makes beer that actually tastes good and is available at most grocery stores. They make an IPA, golden, dark, and copper, but we recommend this collab with Laird Hamilton’s Superfoods. It’s an IPA with mango, pineapple, and hints of coconut water—and it’s delicious.
Lyre’s American Malt | $36
A non-alcoholic bourbon? Yes, it’s real. Lyre’s American Malt is a booze-free alternative that tastes remarkably like the real thing and saves you from having to order a kiddie cocktail at your next grown-up party. Not a fan of old-fashioneds? The brand also offers non-alcoholic versions of gin, vermouth, tequila, coffee liqueur, and even absinthe for your mixing pleasure. Order through their website, and you’ll get a free 15-minute mixology lesson to help you learn how to make the fanciest (and tastiest) mocktails.
Lagunitas Hop Hoppy Refresher | $5.50/four-pack
It’s a sparkling water, it’s a hops tea, it’s…something else entirely new? Lagunitas’ brewmaster says to think of it as a club soda with soul. A zero-calorie, zero-alcohol sparkling water made with the hops from their brewery process, it’s lighter than a non-alcoholic beer, but with more to it than just a water. By far the best hops water or hops tea on the market. The only nuisance is because of how the small brewery, Lagunitas, is classified at stores, you will often still get carded when purchasing.