When Chris Brandt was training for an Ironman event in 2004, he was strict about what he did and did not put into his body. "I was pretty monk-like," the 39-year-old says. But something unexpected happened after he joined a running club the next year and learned to relax a little bit and enjoy a few pints of beer.
"I used to be kind of the teetotaller and drink only one beer every two nights or something like that. And since I've relaxed - and I'm not an alcoholic by any means - but to be able to kind of have fun and drink a lot more, my running has improved substantially," says Mr. Brandt, president of the Vancouver Falcons Athletics Club.
Serious runners are often thought of as the sort of health-conscious people who would never let a drop of vino or a sip of ale pass their lips. But that stereotype is certainly dispelled when Mr. Brandt's running club meets for drinks on Thursday nights after training.
"When we're all sitting around in a pub and drinking four or five beers in a night, we know that it's not that way," he says.
For some people, running is seen as a way to counterbalance the effects of consuming alcohol or puffing the occasional cigarette. When you're training hard, you've earned a night out once in a while, the thinking goes. And there's no doubt runners enjoy a night out at the bar. A 1996 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that recreational runners drink more alcohol than their sedentary counterparts. As well, a 2008 poll sponsored by Runner's World magazine found that 2 per cent of the 2,500 respondents smoked but kept it a secret from their running friends, while 4 per cent made no bones about lighting up. But as much as running may seem like an excuse to indulge vices, experts say alcohol can hurt performance and impact training for much longer than some runners may think.
"I think people who run sometimes use it as an excuse that they can do whatever they want," says Dawn Weatherwax-Fall, founder of Sports Nutrition to Go in Ohio. But consuming more than two alcoholic drinks at a time can hamper a training schedule. "It will affect performance up to three days before you get back to optimal. And if you do two nights of that in a row, it will affect you for up to five days," she says.
Lisette Schermann, a member of the Saskatoon Hash House Harriers, which describes itself as "a drinking club with a running problem," will have anywhere from one beer during the club's runs and one at the pub afterward, to several pints during a run and several more afterward.
"They can turn into a bender," the 32-year-old says of the group's runs.
For many members of the club, running justifies engaging in some less than healthy activities.
"Part of the reason why people are putting in all these miles is so they can eat ice cream and goof around and do this stuff and not worry too much about the impact it's going to have on their health," Ms. Schermann says.
A runner's performance can be greatly improved by relaxation and occasionally easing up on a strict training schedule, says John Hill, a past winner of the Vancouver Marathon and coach of the Vancouver Falcons Athletics Club.
"That definitely benefits [runners]" Mr. Hill says. Getting away from a rigid schedule or self-imposed demands to perform, whether by training in a less structured way or going to the bar with friends, can take the pressure off and help runners find renewed motivation. "Whether it's physical balance or other things in your life, it's absolutely critical," Mr. Hill says.
Anita K., a 32-year-old from Toronto who asked not to be identified, is busy training six days a week for a half-marathon next month that she hopes to complete in one hour and 50 minutes, which would qualify her for the Boston Marathon. She also smokes a pack of cigarettes a day and has for the past 17 years.
"I love my cigarettes," she says. While she doesn't think running entirely makes up for smoking - "I don't have that delusion" - it does diminish the effects of smoking much more than if she were just a couch potato, she says.
John-David Kato, an exercise physiologist in Toronto, says that running can help fight the negative impacts of smoking.
"If you're sedentary and a smoker, you're worse off. If you are a smoker and you're physically active, it's not as bad," he says. That said, however, smoking is "the worst thing" for your health, he says.
Anita says she has no plans to quit, even if doing so might help her perform better in the half-marathon.
Even the most die-hard runners are often reluctant to give up drinking to prepare for races. Ms. Schermann, for example, is planning on running a half-marathon in August and a 50K race in October. But she doesn't plan on eliminating a few beers once in a while from her training schedule.
"I'll cut it back, but I won't cut it out entirely," she says.