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Chug, Run, Chug: How the Beer Mile Became a Serious Competition

What started as a joke is now a well-studied professional pursuit, and not the only positive correlation between running and drinking. Could beer actually be a recovery drink?

Three runners jogging while holding full beer steins Elias Stein/Getty Images

It was only Lap 2 and my body already felt like a pressurized tank ready to explode.

Moments earlier, I had pounded my second Coors and took off running around the local high school track. Usually I can run a mile in about seven and a half minutes. But this was my first-ever beer mile, a race wherein the runner chugs a beer, runs a quarter-mile, chugs another beer, and so on. There are many more rules, among them: Beer must have a minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) of 5 percent, and it must be carbonated. The beer usually is consumed from cans, but since I was running circles around a green on which a middle school soccer team was practicing, I had my husband discreetly pour my beer into a cup after each lap.

You’d figure that a relatively fast person who runs almost daily and thoroughly enjoys beer would be an excellent candidate to run a beer mile. What I didn’t account for is that the act of running stirs up all that carbonated, carbo-loaded, delicious liquid, forbidding it from settling nicely in your stomach. Instead, it sits somewhere between your throat and chest, occasionally slamming down on said stomach like a sack of oranges.

The four beer-enhanced laps took me just more than 11 minutes. Happily, I did not throw up. (Another rule: Participants are required to run an extra lap if they puke.) But I burped more than I thought humanly possible.

This may have been my first beer mile, but it wasn’t my first experience combining my passions of running and drinking beer. I’ve joined running groups that end at breweries, and I’m a big fan of a cold beer (or three) after a half-marathon. The sport and the drink seem to gravitate toward one another in a way they shouldn’t. “Beer chases” (usually in the form of relays where team members run a total of 50 or more miles between breweries, enjoying beer along the way) and a long list of other beer-oriented running competitions are quickly becoming popular entries in the weird sports category. Within recent years, the beer mile went from bro-ish Saturday-night activity to a serious endeavor among elite athletes. What began as happenstance on a high school track in 1989 has graduated to a well-studied professional pursuit—perhaps officially when a runner broke the five-minute beer-mile barrier in 2014.

I will be breaking no such time limit, but I do understand the desire for a runner to turn anything—even drinking—into a competition. Josh Harris, a professional Australian runner who began competing in the beer mile in 2009, became the world record holder in 2012 and again in 2015. (At the same time, he was training to become a competitive marathoner, eventually running 26.2 miles in two hours and 17 minutes to qualify for the 2017 IAAF Championships.)

Clearly, Harris’s abilities stretch beyond the lowly beer mile, but a 2009 camping trip to celebrate the end of track season ended up turning him on to the sport. “I couldn’t drink a beer fast to save my life at that point in time,” he says. On his first attempt, he completed the beer mile in eight minutes and 22 seconds—not nearly fast enough to be considered elite. Harris was determined to get faster, and says it was his drinking that needed more work than his running. He found a better technique. “From that point on,” he says, “I was the best in the world at the time, and had control of the world record for a while until the beer mile grew in popularity.” Then the sport became overwhelmed by new competition; Harris’s 2015 record was 4:56:2, but he has since conceded the throne. “[It’s] dominated by Corey Bellemore, a sub-four-minute miler who can drink the beers as fast as anyone,” he says. Bellemore recently ran the beer mile in four minutes and 24 seconds in Vancouver, B.C., but he was disqualified for not drinking the requisite amount of beer. (He left behind half an ounce.)

While Harris still runs the occasional beer mile when it fits into his schedule, he’s now competing as an elite marathoner. Anyway, he says, the competition’s become too stiff. Which makes all too much sense, given how many runners have a beer craving that cannot be quenched.

“You don’t want to do, like, bourbon shots or run the vodka mile,” says Jake Neilson, a brand manager at Widmer Brothers Brewing. I had wandered into the Portland-based brewery to talk to Neilson about its recent Beer Olympics celebration. Our meeting ended in a stein-holding competition (following a few beers, obviously).

This was the first year Widmer held a Beer Olympics (sample event: keg lifts), but the standing-room-only turnout means that it probably won’t be the last. Just a few blocks away, Ecliptic Brewing organizes an annual beer mile, but skipped this year because of zoning issues. (Organizing an athletic event for the public that involves chugging alcohol comes with some restrictions.) Less competitive events exist as well, where local organizations combine more casual runs that end with—you guessed it—beer. Morgan Jappe is one of the founders of Brewery Running Series, a Minnesota-based organization that runs 5Ks around local breweries. Since starting the series in 2012, it has expanded to chapters all over the country. “The general concept has stayed the same,” Jappe says. “We organize an event at a brewery typically on a Saturday or Sunday morning, we map a course that starts and ends at the tap room, you get a token for a free beer and hang out.” The group’s goal isn’t only to bring runners together or encourage a good workout. It’s also to promote the breweries they partner with.

Jappe, who has competed in a marathon, admits Brewery Running Series is not all that original. “I don’t think our idea is something new. I think running and beer, those worlds have gone together for a long time,” Jappe says. Meanwhile, Neilson is a firm believer in the healing powers of beer, spouting terms like “flocculation,” “original gravity,” and “acidulation.” These attributes of beer are what make it seem like you’re drinking a shake after a workout, he says. But is there really something inherent in the chemistry of beer that makes it a healthy post-run recovery drink?

While ingesting beer before running certainly won’t make you go faster, Neilson isn’t the only one who thinks that it could be beneficial after exercise. Some breweries are creating beer with exactly this factor in mind. Chief among them is Sufferfest Beer, a San Francisco–based brewery with the slogan “will sweat for beer.” The aim of Sufferfest is to make a beer with some physical benefits that doesn’t sacrifice taste—though it doesn’t claim the drink aids recovery. The Sufferfest team like to qualify theirs as a “functional” beer, which means it’s meant to do something beyond tasting good and giving patrons a nice buzz. Sufferfest beer is gluten-free and has nutrients runners look for in both training and recovery—sodium, iron, potassium, and fiber. It’s also a probiotic. ABV ranges from 3.5 percent to 7.5, fairly strong for what’s deemed a “beer with benefits.” It’s sold not just in grocery stores, but also in climbing gyms and CrossFit studios. “Beer is actually really healthy,” says Sufferfest director of marketing Margaret Link, who recently completed a 50K race. The beverage is high in fiber and electrolytes, and it’s also around 90 to 95 percent water. It’s no wonder that runners crave a beer immediately after crossing the finish line, she says.

In his book The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition, runner and running coach Matt Fitzgerald breaks down the best—and worst—things for runners to consume. Beer isn’t listed in the latter category; Fitzgerald recommends that runners have one or two beers a day while in training mode. Beer is high in complex B vitamins, which help convert food into fuel as well as create red blood cells, which transport oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. B vitamins also promote bone strength, a particularly useful benefit for female runners. And of course, the ever-popular antioxidants found in beer are anti-inflammatories.

Whether beer is a good recovery drink is often debated, but the connection between drinking and running is more clear. A 2015 study conducted at the University of Houston focused on the correlation between people devoted to fitness and those who are fans of drinking. “My gym often offered exercise classes followed by beer or wine,” J. Leigh Leasure, one of the paper’s authors, said via email. “Combining exercise - which promotes health - with alcohol - which does not promote health - seemed jarring to me.” She and her colleagues found a positive correlation between working out and alcohol intake. In reality, it has less to do with any recovery aspects of beer and more to do with personality type and brain chemistry.

“Exercise provides a wealth of benefits to brain and body, and is regarded as a protective factor against disease,” the researchers wrote. “Protective factors tend to cluster together—that is, people who engage in one healthy behavior, such as exercise, also engage in other healthy behaviors, such as maintaining a nutritious diet and getting sufficient sleep. In contrast to exercise, alcohol consumption is not typically regarded as a health-promoting behavior. … Surprisingly, several large, population-based studies have shown a positive association between physical activity and alcohol intake.” That same study’s survey of college students found that those who classified themselves as moderate drinkers were more likely to be physically active, and that as the intensity of their physical activity went up, so did their drinking. Other, broader surveys confirm the correlation beyond college students.

Another connective thread is that exercise and alcohol both stimulate the reward center of the brain. Working out releases dopamine, which the brain likes; it’s a natural reward. Alcohol, on the other hand, serves as a non-natural reward—or, as the paper’s authors put it in more scientific terms: “Intentional fermentation creates high alcohol-content beverages that represent highly rewarding, supraphysiological stimuli with addictive potential.”

“Both exercise and alcohol are capable of activating the mesocorticolimbic pathway, and have some overlapping neurochemical effects,” the study read, also explaining that in addition to triggering the reward part of the brain, both activities can help relieve anxiety. These similarities are why exercise is often suggested as an alternative activity to combat drug and alcohol use; if someone can no longer get their “fix” from a drink or drug, they can exercise and get at least a whiff of the same activated neurochemicals. “It is, therefore, conceivable that people who are not dependent on either alcohol or exercise may engage moderately in both on a regular basis in order to prolong positive effect,” the study read. Leasure told me that the act of drinking a beer after running, in essence, can sustain that elusive runner’s high.

However, Leasure does not believe there is anything replenishing about the chemistry of beer as a post-workout drink, despite the perhaps desperate claims from those of us wishing it were. “Alcohol will just further dehydrate people after exercise already has,” she says. According to ample research, it appears she is right—unfortunately.

The potential of puking is something beer milers are warned about, but what you don’t hear as often is how uniquely weird you will feel afterward. It’s a combination of very ill, very relieved, and … honestly, kind of drunk. I’d asked many people for advice: a friend who runs one every year, a few local brewers, and even a former world record holder. Should I use a nitro beer to cut down on carbonation? (No, that’s against the rules.) Should I choose something really light? (Bud Light Platinum is a current fave among beer milers.) Should I focus on running fast or drinking fast? (Drinking fast; it has everything to do with how quickly you can chug.) Another good idea: Burp as much as possible.

I survived, with a relatively terrible time but also a weird sense of accomplishment. Running is hard and punishing enough. There are no points or teammates to support (or distract) you. Rounding the third lap, about to chug my final, lukewarm Coors, I knew I wasn’t necessarily enjoying the process and that I was free to slow down. But that competitive drive wouldn’t allow it. Also, the ridiculousness of what I was doing added levity to what’s usually a rather quiet and serious activity. “It offers a nice counterbalance to the discipline, effort, and discomfort that running entails,” Fitzgerald, who drinks a beer or two every day after his last workout, told me via email. (He prefers pilsners, Belgian ales, porters, and IPAs.) “I’ve seen some scientific evidence that runners are ‘sensation chasers.’ We enjoy intense experiences and altered mental states. Running is one way to experience these, drinking another.”

This makes sense to me, because running is essentially a solitary act made difficult not only because of the physical toll, but also the mental one. While some sports offer a helpful diversion for the mind, running only forces someone more into their own head. You run and you think, often silently. And to me, beer is the antithesis of how quiet, solitary, and serious running can be. Breweries are loud and casual, and beer is unsophisticated and universal. It is also, admittedly, unhealthy, but after a punishing run, all of those carbs and sugars are a reward. And to me, this —beyond the notion of electrolyte recovery or some sort of “work hard, play hard” mentality—is why I drink beer and run. Or, rather, run and then drink beer.

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