Beer and Running: The Best Alcohol-Free Wheat Beers

I am a beer-loving runner. 

The exercise is a good balance to all the alcohol I drink and I’ve done four marathons and a dozen half marathons. Earlier this year I was training for the London Marathon, so while people were out drinking your fancy craft beers on a Fridaynight, I was at home sitting on a yoga mat stretching out my hips, eating vast portions of rice, vicariously enjoying tap takeovers and Double IPAs and burgers via Instagram.

I enjoy marathon training, and I like obsessing over the finer details of nutrition, but long Saturday morning runs really mess up Friday night’s drinking. So it made me think: was there a way to combine beer and running with good exercise nutrition in mind? It all came down to the carbs… 

Carb-loading is not just an excuse to gorge on pasta, rice and bread; those carbs fill the muscles with glycogen, the body’s primary and simplest fuel source. It takes about 500g of carbs to take on the maximum amount of glycogen we can store (it’s like a petrol tank – we can only hold so much and over-fill it and it’ll turn to fat) and this takes 1,500-2,000 calories-worth of exercise to expend (also like a petrol tank, it can run out of fuel); that’s 15-22 miles of running. When the glycogen stores empty, the body has to turn to fat as its fuel, and that’s a lot harder to burn – this is when a runner will hit the much-feared ‘Wall’ or ‘bonks’. 

At the peak of training, filling your muscles with 500g of carbs a day is hard. A very large portion of pasta or rice might be 120g of carbs. A bowl of oats is around 60g. A sweet potato or a large banana are both about 30g. So to hit your carb target, you need to add in liquids: a glass of orange juice (50g), tablespoon of honey in tea or coffee (15g), a sports drink (30g). But I don’t really want to drink those things, especially when I’m home alone, twisted in knots on a yoga mat, micro-managing macro nutrients, and jealously scrolling through social media. 

That made me remember the runs I’ve done in Central Europe. In Prague I’d had a few half-litres of low/non-alcoholic Birell before a marathon there – I was desperate for a cold beer on a hot day and that was my compromise (I got a then-PB of 3.42, so psychologically alcohol-free beer worked for me). And in Germany I’d been handed a glass of alcohol-free hefeweizen at the finish line of the Berlin Marathon and Tegernseer Half Marathon. These wheat beers are marketed as being isotonic recovery drinks packed with vitamins (B12, folic acid plus polyphenols, micronutrients and antioxidants). I looked at the nutrition of the alcohol-free wheat beers and thought they could also work the night before a run.

A half-litre bottle of alcohol-free wheat beer gives around 25g carbs and 120 calories – that’s not much less than a Lucozade, and just from natural ingredients. Sure, a sports scientist might argue that not all carbs are equal and there are different kinds of sugars (fructose, glucose, etc, plus the beers are only around 6-8g sugar and that might be low for running fuel), but I’d take the natural option any day. I also think the <0.5 per cent ABV has a relaxing effect on the body, which is good for helping with sleep. 

Crucially I also really like the taste of alcohol-free wheat beers (much more than Lucozade) and it meant that I could sit at home on a Friday night and enjoy a beer – and have one the following lunchtime when the miles were logged. I’m no nutritionist, and this is all just opinion and personal experience, but it worked for me. 

The important question (and one which I had hours and hours of running time to debate with myself): which one is the best-tasting alcohol-free wheat beer?

Maisel’s Weisse is a rich ruby colour with a thick custardy foam. There’s toasty malt, a real smooth texture, crackers and bread and with a tonic water dryness at the end. It always surprises me how these beers seem to be sweet yet finish incredibly refreshing and dry.

Schneider Weisse Tap 3 is a deep red beer, malty and bready with a tang of refreshing citrus pith quality and a lingering bitterness. It’s surprising neutral in flavour which makes it very easy to drink.

Paulaner is, the label claims, ‘isotonisch’. It has a depth of fresh, fermenting beer with some fruitiness in the aroma. There’s a cracker-like flavour, bready, a tangy edge like sourdough, a hint of honey nut cereal, and while there’s a fullness which suggests sweetness, it’s actually very refreshing.

Franziskaner is bright orange. The malts are sweet and doughy yet it’s a little thinner than the others. It’s very easy drinking and a tangy finish again makes it refreshing, though for me it’s less interesting than the others.

Erdinger is ‘the sporty thirst-quencher’. It pours the same, familiar, wonderful bright orange colour as the others with a thick foam. Definitely sweeter, there’s more of a richer grain flavour, some lemon and tropical fruits, plus the banana esters you usually expect in a Hefeweizen (which isn’t in many of the others). To me this is the best of the beers. There’s just more flavour, more complexity, to it.

Not all alcohol-free beers are good (most of the lagers are like dishwater) but I genuinely like drinking these German wheat beers. They are good drinks, close to the boozy versions, and I think they work for me before and after running. Despite liking them, I was certainly excited to get my Friday night pale ales back. And leaving the yoga mat home alone.

All of these beers were from Beers of Europe (who also sell alcoholic ones).  

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