The Why Behind Michael Phelps’ Alcohol Abstinence

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Eric Bugby, Swimming World Contributor and Associate Head Coach at West Point

In a recent interview with Paul Newberry of the Associated Press, Michael Phelps swore off alcohol until after the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Of course.

That’s the consensus reaction to the news. Why wouldn’t a professional athlete do anything and everything to be the best? Especially an athlete coming off a six-month suspension for a second DUI arrest. It’s ethical and responsible.

But refraining from drinking is not the consensus among the athletic community, professional or amateur. Alcohol is a major part of American culture.

Take a look at the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA, MLS, NASCAR, ATP and the PGA.

Professional sports are sponsored by alcohol and promote various brands to generate revenue.  They romanticize alcohol: young adults in blithe social situations.


Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

It’s working.


Approximately 80 percent of Americans use alcohol.

Approximately 80 percent of college students use alcohol.

Approximately 80 percent of student-athletes use alcohol.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I remain very concerned about this issue despite signs of a decrease in excessive alcohol usage,” said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline. “All college students need to understand the considerable negative consequences associated with excessive drinking, which poses dangers from which they need to protect themselves and others.”

Productivity. Performance. Motor skills. Mood. Relationships.

These are the top areas that alcohol inhibits after one drink as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It’s easy to find research that outlines the negative impact of alcohol. It’s even easier to neglect that research watching the NFL on Sundays, or the MLB on ESPN, or the NBA on ABC, or the NHL on NBC, or NASCAR on FOX, or any commercial on most network and cable channels.

Bucking the Trend

There’s one athlete willing to listen to the research.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“If I’m going to come back, I need to do this the right way,” Phelps said.

“I’ve got to put my body in the best physical shape I can possibly get it in. Is it a challenge? No. I go to bed earlier. I sleep more. I wake up every day and have a completely clear head. I don’t feel like my head went through a brick wall. There are so many positives to it.”

Skeletal muscles, hydration, metabolism and the central nervous system are the top areas that alcohol inhibits after one drink as outlined by the National Institute of Health for athletes.

More specifically, a single drink of alcohol can decrease strength output by inhibiting calcium channels in skeletal muscles, increase evaporation and reduce body temperature, reduce glycogen uptake immediately following intensive bouts of exercise, impair balance, dexterity, and REM sleep.

Not only does alcohol detract from athletic performance in practice and competition, but it has a direct affect on recovery.


That’s the magic word in swimming. Swimmers dream of recovery. Whether it’s a full practice as part of a two-week cycle or a 30-minute nap between doubles, recovery means everything to endurance athletes and it’s the reason swimmers improve.

Alcohol “decreases muscle protein synthesis” and “suppress[es] the phosphorylation and activation of the mTOR pathways.” mTOR is a protein that regulates cell growth.

Alcohol makes all the hard work from one day or one week or one month obsolete.

In his statement, Phelps is once again a role model to all swimmers, young and old. It’s a statement that should be read by all athletes, parents, and coaches. And if his performances at Nationals are any indication of the power of abstaining from alcohol, then I can only imagine what Rio will bring.


  1. Ray House

    I support Michael on this note 100 %, and proudly join him in abstinence! After watching him at Nationals in San Antonio, his competitors should beware :-).

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      Yep, I saw him there too and got the sunburn to prove it. Ouch! I hope it’s abstinence forever.

  2. Tyler Yates

    Does this mean he’s also abstaining from marijuana? 🙂

  3. Andrew Webber

    He was way out of order with his drink driving. Sorry but I’m not interested in what he does now.

    • Natália Antunes

      Then why did you even stopped and read it? #hypocrisy

      • avatar

        Good for him making good choices. But other people that look for the flaws in others, should look in the mirror. #haters

      • avatar
        Caitlin Garrison

        Grant, they are not haters in this instance. And he didn’t make good choices, that is the point. He has 2 DUIs. I guarantee you that most people that look in the mirror will not see two DUIs one of which was at a high rate of speed through a tunnel. As I said in another post I was hit by a drunk driver. Anyone that drives a car or rides in one has a right to be angry and to voice their opinion. However I believe it is more valuable to get past it and hope to see him turn it all around. That is what I always wish for alcoholics so there won’t be more victims like me. Helping them helps me.

    • Andrew Webber

      Who says I read it. Too late to make a fuss about being on the wagon. He behaved irresponsibly, I’m not interested in what he does.

      • avatar

        Yet here you are. I’m curious, ever throw stones in that glass house you live in? What purpose does your post serve, to troll? You feel obligated to be the voice of those who refuse to look past his poor decision?

        By the tone of your post, if you have yourself done anything, ever, contrary to what is deemed responsible, you should then not be concerned with your own advancement as person by changing your life after a poor decision. It sounds to me that you are a pure person, 100% infalable, and most importantly above all those who have done anything wrong.

      • avatar

        Everyone deserves a second chance. What’s in your closet?

      • avatar
        Caitlin Garrison

        You should be interested. Everyone that drives a car or rides in a car should be. It’s not too late. It is NEVER too late. You can be angry, and he deserves some of that. I was angry because what he did mirrored what the drunk did that hit me. He was weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed. The difference is I got clipped in the front which forced me into a guardrail. Phelps missed the vehicles he passed. But if your attitude is that it is too late you are saying ignore it. It took me a while after I was hit by a drunk driver to let go of my anger. I choose to try to help people. In that way I feel like I help to keep them from doing it again. It also helps me to get passed it. If you are angry get the DUI laws in your state changed. Most are too lenient.

      • avatar
        Caitlin Garrison

        Ginny, that WAS his second chance. This is the 2nd DUI, not the first. Most people don’t have 2 DUIs in their “closet”

      • avatar

        Are you kidding me? Oh yes most people do have more than two DUIs in their history, Caitlin. They just haven’t been caught by law enforcement while doing so. Get real!

      • avatar
        Caitlin Garrison

        Coacherik a lot of people have trouble looking past that kind of a “poor decision” especially if it is a second “poor decision”. A poor decision that could have killed someone. That does not mean he is a troll. He could be a victim, who has not yet let go of the anger. Who knows. I have chosen to let go of my anger toward the drunk driver who hit me but it wasn’t easy. I am more angry at people who look at it as a “mistake” and not a crime which it is. By your tone, you seem to feel that Andrew doesn’t deserve to feel angry about someone driving drunk.

  4. Alison Miller

    I wish him the best in turning his life around.
    Repentance, and doing ones utmost to turn his life around is an example to us all.

  5. Kate Ericsson

    Good for him! More people need to speak up about the benefits of sobriety

  6. Nick Wilker

    Ryco Conquistador check this article out

  7. Mark Grainge

    Okay. “use” alcohol. It’s not like it’s performance enhancing!

  8. Tammy Lee

    I thought he just got out of rehab. He shouldn’t drink ever, not just quit until the Olympics. That’s what the article should have addressed.

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      Agree with you 100%. Instead the author used an incorrect connection with Phelps to talk about the effects of alcohol and performance.

  9. avatar

    Michael you are a all time great swimmer you do not need booze to make it in your everyday life! Take it one day at a time!!!

  10. Jennifer Lamb

    Because he went to rehab and that the first thing you quit is your addiction?! Duh!

  11. avatar
    Jim Lutz

    No one is perfect. We make mistake. We try and overcome. Sometimes we have success and sometimes we find we are still human with faults. Working to make things better is worth an “atta boy”, unless of course, you are most happy when you are unhappy and find joy in other peoples struggles. I’m glad some people are perfect and have never made a mistake. It must be awesome to be the only perfect person who was told by Jesus to cast the first stone. As for Michael, nice to have you back and good luck.

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      This was more than a “mistake”. This is two DUIs. Statistics show that drunk drivers are not caught most of the time. I suspect that he was only CAUGHT twice. It is not just a mistake to drive twice the speed limit when you are hammered. He is lucky he was not charged with reckless endangerment for his 80mph speed, which is a felony. A “mistake” is when you accidentally throw a ball through a neighbors window. There are millions of imperfect people out there who have not risked the lives of others by speeding, and weaving in and out of traffic in a tunnel while drunk. I work with a lot of alcoholics who have been popped for DUIs and the attitude that it is just a “mistake” does not help get them back on track.

  12. Mike Gutierrez

    Ah… but is he swearing off the weed too?

  13. Donald P. Spellman

    Phelps has had issues concerning his drinking. This is the only move for him right now and it seems to be working.
    Some athletes (and people in general) have no problem having a drink every now and then. Wine has some benefits for the body (in moderation). If the athlete is over the legal age and they are not partaking in binge drinking or dangerous behavior it really does not effect training much.

    • avatar

      You don’t need to drink wine to get even more healthy benefits! Just think of all the myriad lives destroyed by alcohol in various ways!

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      There is a big difference between having a drink now and then and getting hammered every now and then. If one is an alcoholic one can’t even drink every now and then.

  14. avatar

    Elevated levels of alcohol dehydrogenase in anaerobic athletes. Stay tuned, and don’t judge…

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      Then you have never been hit by a drunk driver. If you drive, are a passenger in a car or are walking on the sidewalk you have a right to judge. Phelps’ elevated alcohol levels were due to approximately 9 beers to be twice the legal limit. Give me a break!

  15. Evan Shanley

    Michael needs to stay away from alcohol because he can’t responsibility drink. What else is there to say? The guy doesn’t have the self control to drink responsibly.

  16. avatar
    Jim C

    I need to type this out, so bear with me. This is a guy who got stopped for driving under twice; admitted he had a problem; checked into rehab; trained like a champion and turned in three top times in the world. NOW, he says he won’t drink until after Rio. What’s wrong with this picture? Self-admitted alcoholics don’t defer drinking….they abstain a day at a time. He’s dangling the carrot of alcohol as if it is some future reward for a job well done. He seems to have learned nothing in rehab and will always be on the precipice of yet another active encounter with the disease. I have driven drunk, been pulled over, and done other reckless things in the past. I have also recently observed my 28 year anniversary in AA, one day at a time. Hopefully MP will figure out that alcohol for the alcoholic is poison, and that he doesn’t hurt (or worse) anyone else (or himself) with his self-admitted problem. I’m disappointed in the article. Great athlete, yes; role model, not so much.

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      Congratulations on your anniversary! I truly hope he doesn’t plan to drink again too. I was hoping that interview was a misprint until I saw it live. That really upset me. He has 2 DUIs but no telling how many other instances there have been. Some of the people I help tell me they have driven drunk multiple times before they got caught, which is scary. However he CAN be a role model for this if he chooses to. It’s not if you screw up but what you do about it that can make you a role model. Others that have alcohol issues, especially kids can learn from him, but he hasn’t yet said or done much on that issue. Just business as usual.

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      That’s right, and that’s all anyone can ask.

  17. avatar

    If Michael weren´t such a celebrity, would he be considered as an alcoholic too? What symptoms has he been showing except being caught drunk twice?
    I am not defending him, to me he is not a fairy. He is just a normal human being extraordinarily gifted for swimming. And he is not an alcoholic either. By saying he quits alcohol until after Rio, doesn´t it mean he does not want to get into the same situation again and so lose a chance to win more gold Olympic medals?
    If he were an heavy alcoholic, wouldn´t he say he quits alcohol forever?

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      Yes, if he weren’t a celebrity he would be considered an alcoholic. You don’t go to rehab and then join AA if you aren’t. I have worked with alcoholics who delude themselves that they can be social drinkers. That doesn’t work. I don’t know what you mean by “heavy alcoholic”. Do you think that alcoholics are all drunk every night? There is such a thing as a functioning alcoholic.

      • avatar

        I guess you are right. But don´t you think that he might have undergone all the rehab and joined the AA because of the pressure coming from media, sponsors, and other people around him?

        I think no one can ever imagine what it is like to be Michael Phelps and how much pressure he is under. No one has ever won so many medals and broken so many world records (in swimming). It is exciting, on the other hand, mentally as well as physically exhausting. Everyone expects the best of him all the time. Such a famous person looses his identity, being all the time stressed not to do anything wrong despite the fact that s/he feels just as a normal human being who wants to have a good time with friends, for instance.
        I just cannot believe that a value of 0.14 per mille he got in his breath is a sign of being an alcoholic. If it is so, it is said because most of the people in the world must be alcoholics as well since a value after drinking e.g. 1 European beer left in human body is approximately 0.22 per mille…. What must he have been drinking if he got less than a value of 1 beer? A permitted value is 0,07 right? I would be more concerned if he got his value much higher and drove a car and such situatins were frequently repeating…

  18. Millie Smedley McHugh

    I am proud of Michael Phelps for taking a mistake and reading the facts about the damages he can do to himself – emotionally, mentally, and physically. No one should judge — you’re not wearing his swim fins – you’re not “him”.

    • avatar
      Caitlin Garrison

      Phelps didn’t read the research. The author implied that which is unfortunate. He was arrested and as a second offender he went to rehab. If he has really turned his life around you should be proud of him.

  19. avatar
    Caitlin Garrison

    Mr. Bugby makes it sound like Phelps sat in a library and read research on alcohol to improve his health and career and be a role model for kids everywhere. Where did he get that idea? I am clueless where he gets that connection and him making it is a little irresponsible.

    The why behind Michael Phelps alcohol abstinence has nothing to do with him “listening to the research”. He was arrested for a second DUI and part of his suspended sentence is that he not drink for 18 months. He went to rehab for 45 days and he joined AA; he is an alcoholic. He possibly went to rehab to avoid going to jail as a second offender, we will never know. I would like to believe it was all his idea to clean up. You don’t join AA because of “the research”. You join AA because you now realize you can’t do it on your own. It’s one day at a time once you are an addict and that is why I am distressed (shocked, dismayed) that he has left the door open to drink after the games. At the tail end of his statement he said “or ever”, which is what he should choose to do. If you are an alcoholic, you can’t drink ever. If he is going to be a role model, he can do this by sticking with the program. So far he looks really good (not just his swimming) and sounds good. He said after his court appearance that he wanted to share his experience with people, make sure they don’t do what he did. I wonder when that will happen. The real test will be when something goes wrong and he will have to handle a stressor. But if he believes that he can drink again, he could be in for future trouble and that 45000 bucks he plunked down at the Meadows was flushed down the toilet. I have worked with addicts as young as 14 and I have seen a lot. The keys are being honest with yourself and having friends and family members that don’t enable you. Am I passionate about this? You bet I am.