Could Drinking Non-Alcoholic Beer Make Me A Better Runner?

This year I signed up for my first half-marathon. I thought it would be good to challenge myself by working toward a goal, rather than just sticking to the same routine I've always had. I genuinely enjoy running, but half-marathon training has encouraged me to keep better track of it. I'm now more aware of my pacing, my eating habits, and the variables that can make an eight-mile run feel refreshing one day and miserable another day.

I also love beer and find it highly compatible with running. Over the years, I've learned that I run best on the mornings when I'd had two beers the night before. Anything more and I'll be sluggish the next morning, but two beers on a Friday night and I'll run faster than I normally would on Saturday morning—about 15 seconds faster per mile, my run-tracking app tells me.

So as a runner and beer lover, I've followed news stories claiming non-alcoholic beer can be part of an athletic regiment. German Olympians used it in South Korea and Danish brewery Mikkeller, known for not just its beer but its running clubs, makes a 0.3 percent ABV lager called Racing Beer. Beer contains polyphenols, which is why researchers postulate it helps the body recover after a workout.

I was intrigued. Non-alcoholic beer wouldn't normally be in my fridge, but thanks to this pretty abysmal non-alcoholic beer tasting, I had a bunch on hand. Now's the time to give it a shot, I figured.

I tested the non-alcoholic beer's effects in two ways: as a pre-run drink and as a post-run drink. In the first scenario, I drank a 12-ounce can an hour before I went for a five-mile run. The first time I tried this, it didn't make me feel any different as I set off on my route, and I actually had a pretty crappy run that day. (I was also slowly recovering from a gross, inescapable cold, so I think my poor performance that day was probably most attributable to screwed-up nasal passages.) Still, the NA beer didn't contribute to an improvement over my baseline pace that day, and I slogged through the run rather slowly.

The second and third times around—having recovered from my cold—I still didn't notice any improvement in my pacing after drinking the NA beer before a run. I also realized that drinking beer, even without alcohol in it, before a run feels kind of weird. I don't like the way the carbonation sits in my stomach; it feels like I'm shaking up a plastic bottle of soda inside my stomach. Conclusion: The pre-run beer is going to be a no-go for me.

Next, I tried the NA beer in its more common use: as a post-run "recovery drink." After five-mile runs, I drank a glass of water and then, after my shower, another 12-ounce NA beer. This method actually might have had some positive effects: One post-run morning, I woke up and, despite my lingering cold and three straight days of running, I felt pretty energized. No sore legs, no tired calves. Was it the beer? After another post-run "recovery beer" trial, I noticed that I felt better running the day after said beer. And a beer (albeit an NA one) actually sounds kind of appetizing after a run.

Obviously, my few runs' worth of experimentation is too small a sample size to make any iron-clad conclusions, but I'm willing to continue the NA-beer-as-recovery-drink routine. A lot of athletic people that I know head for a beer after a game or practice, but sometimes I find that post-exertion beers just bog me down. After a difficult hike a few weekends ago, I biked to a brewery here in town for lunch and beers. The two regular-strength beers made me feel drained rather than recovered, and my legs felt exhausted as I made the quick bike trip home from the brewery. (Or maybe that was the pretzel and bratwurst sandwich? I guess I'm not great at setting up controlled-variable experiments when it comes to my diet.) Another upside is that when I go for my longer marathon-training runs, they're usually in the morning—a non-alcoholic beer would make for a more productive rest of my day than its boozy sibling.

Like many runners, I'm slightly superstitious in my habits. I don't prefer to run in the evenings; I like a specific model of sneaker (heaven forbid Brooks ever discontinues it); and I run faster without headphones than with them. If I find that an NA beer recovery drink works for me on a few more occasions, it could easily become part of the ritual. Even if that's a placebo effect, I'll take all the help I can get.