In the fall of 2014, the winningest athlete in Olympic history didn’t want to be alive anymore. Michael Phelps had just been arrested for DUI and he was “in really a dark place,” he said. The swimmer’s blood-alcohol level was at 0.14. With Phelps’ weight at the time at about 225, he would have had to consume around nine drinks in one hour to hit that mark. Ten years earlier, at age 19, Phelps pleaded guilty to driving while impaired. In ’09, he was photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe and suspended for three months by USA Swimming. Phelps’ 2014 arrest earned him a six-month suspension. Phelps, 30, is now back in the pool. In August, he swam the fastest 200-meter butterfly and fastest 200-meter individual medley in the world this year. “I’m back to being the little kid who once said anything is possible,” Phelps told Sports Illustrated. With the Summer Olympics looming in Rio, “you’re going to see a different me,” he said. Phelps credits his turnaround to his decision to check into a comprehensive inpatient alcohol treatment facility. A few days into treatment, the swimmer said he began to view rehab as a competition, another one he was determined to win. And soon, the walls he had built up began to crumble. Through therapy, Phelps says he learned a lot about himself and has begun to rebuild his relationship with his father. “I would like to have a father in my life, and I’ve been carrying that around for 20 years,” he told the magazine. His parents divorced when he was 9, and Phelps said he had felt abandoned. On his stay in rehab, he said: “I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach. One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being.” In most cases, people who enter treatment for alcohol or drug abuse are using substances to self-medicate. Phelps didn’t directly tie his alcohol use to the pain of feeling abandoned as a child, but, as his sister Hilary said: “You could tell that he had peeled back layers that had been there a long time.” One of the things people focus on during addiction treatment is working through negative emotional states. Addressing the issues that led to the drug or alcohol abuse helps people get to the heart of their problems and can also have a protective effect against relapse. As to his sobriety, Phelps told the magazine: “Haven’t had a single sip and will not have a sip. My body fat has dropped significantly, and I’m leaner than I’ve ever been. The performances were there because I worked, recovered, slept and took care of myself more than I ever had.”
Alcohol Most Abused Drug Among Athletes
When we hear about athletes and addiction, we typically think about performance-enhancing drugs like steroids, human growth hormone supplements and stimulants. But the tremendous pressure elite athletes face to perform at their best at every outing also puts them at risk for abuse of the same drugs mere mortals often lean on to relieve stress, such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and prescription painkillers. In fact, alcohol has been named the most abused drug in collegiate sports by the NCAA and in professional and Olympic sports by the NFL, NBA and USOC. But the very thing that many athletes use to cope with the pressure to excel works against them when the time comes to perform. “The expectations placed on elite athletes, by themselves and others, create massive levels of stress and like anyone they look for ways to alleviate this stress,” said Matthew Barnes, PhD, a professor of sport and medicine and a prominent researcher on alcohol and exercise at New Zealand’s Massey University. “Unfortunately this is where alcohol and other drugs come in. And given the popularity of athletes in the social environment, who wouldn’t want to be seen drinking with a star athlete like Michael Phelps? It is easy for athletes to fall into a habit of extreme socializing with free drinks, drugs and sex.” What’s worse, Barnes says, is that athletes, particularly male athletes, may be more likely to have addictive personalities. “They have been shown to have higher rates of addiction than others,” Barnes said. “These two factors — easy, regular access to alcohol and an addictive personality — can obviously be a recipe for disaster. Expectation, lack of performance and self-doubt plus the depressant effects of alcohol can easily lead an athlete, or anyone, to a very dark place.”
Cascading Effects of Alcohol
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a casual exerciser, gym rat or Olympic athlete, consuming alcohol before or after working out can cancel out any benefits gained from the activity. The effect of alcohol on exercise has been studied by University of Auckland professor David Cameron-Smith, who warns that drinking hurts performance in both the short and long term. “One of the key determinants of success is not just event-day performance, but the continuous gains and improvements that are made through the long, arduous grind of training,” Cameron-Smith told The Guardian. “Most people should be aware of the impact alcohol has if you consume it the night before a race, but not everyone appreciates the disruptive impact it has on the way your body adapts to handling the training, and that’s the most important part.”
Six Ways Alcohol Affects Performance
- Alcohol slows one’s ability to react to an opponent or object for 72 hours after intake. Precision, equilibrium, hand-eye coordination, stamina, strength, power and speed are all negatively affected even after all traces of alcohol are removed from the bloodstream.
- Alcohol interferes with deep, restorative REM sleep, a major component of recovery, as well as daytime attention. There are alternating phases of deep sleep, called paradoxical or REM sleep during which we dream, and slow wave sleep. When the progression of these two phases is disturbed, you’ll feel sluggish the next day (sometimes longer), and the body’s ability to store glycogen — a crucial energy source necessary for endurance — is decreased.
- Alcohol, a powerful diuretic, can severely dehydrate one’s body for up to a week, depending on how much is consumed. Among other things, proper hydration is essential for preventing injuries such as muscle pulls and strains.
- Alcohol can interfere with muscle growth because it inhibits the body’s ability to produce and release growth hormone. Human growth hormone is part of the normal muscle-building and repair process and the body’s way of telling itself the muscles need to grow bigger and stronger.
- Alcohol causes an increase in a hormone called cortisol, which can wreak havoc on our lives. Chronically high cortisol levels have been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal weight gain, a decline in cardiovascular health, decreased thyroid function and memory loss. Meanwhile, increased cortisol levels are offset by reduced testosterone levels, causing muscles to degrade and reducing the body’s capacity to burn fat.
- Drinking too much depresses the immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Statistics show athletes who drink get sick more often and are slower to heal from sports-related injuries. Chronic drinkers are also more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Substance abuse treatment helped Phelps do more than just conquer his reliance on alcohol. It helped the legendary swimmer come to have a better understanding of himself. He emerged a happy, healthy, highly focused athlete who believes the best days lay ahead. Phelps’ arrest and recovery show that anyone can fall victim to substance abuse and there is always help available. As for Phelps’ “dark place,” studies conducted at the Scripps Research Institute in California found that chemical changes in the brain caused by heavy alcohol consumption lead to “dark feelings,” which result in more drinking. Phelps has never said he is an alcoholic, but if the day of his DUI arrest wasn’t the first time he consumed nine drinks in one sitting, science says Phelps’ descent into a dark place was inevitable. By Laura Nott Photography courtesy of Creative Commons Sources: The Dark Side of Drug Addiction Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery Drugs and Sports How Does Alcohol Affect Your Athletic Performance? The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis A Comparison of Maladaptive Behaviors of Athletes and Nonathletes