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How to Drink and Be Healthy: Lessons from a Pro Athlete

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Think about our top athletes (say, Serena Williams or LeBron James) with a drink in hand. It’s hard to picture, right? After all, American culture tends to keep alcohol and athleticism separate. So what happens when a performance athlete also has a love of wine? Meet Stefani Jackenthal, adventure travel and wine writer, wine educator and competitive elite endurance racer of nearly 20 years. She’s raced bikes, competed in Ironman triathlons and ultra runs, ran the New York City marathon while shooting video and raced across the world, from Borneo to Big Sur. She produces corporate and private wine tastings and she teaches clients of all kinds about wine—all while training. Here, she explains how she balances her love of wine and whiskey with running, biking, kayaking and more.

What is a typical day like for you, training-wise?


My lifestyle is very fitness oriented. For nonracing days, like on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll run nine to 11 miles and then usually take a hot vinyasa yoga class. If it’s nice out, I’ll ride 25 to 30 miles midweek or I’ll do a two-hour spin class—and there’s always yoga thrown in. Some days, I go to the gym and lift, and on the weekends, if the weather is nice, I’ll run 11 miles and meet my paddling partner and kayak for a couple of hours. I’m sort of hyper and have a lot of energy to spend! During race season, exercise probably takes up about three hours a day during the week and on the weekends five to six hours a day on the weekends. Monday is a recovery day.

Is drinking an everyday thing, or is it a special-occasion thing?

It’s funny—my drinking pattern tends to follow my training pattern. Monday for me tends to be a recovery day for endurance sports, so for drinking, I try to take Monday off. I’m typically drinking five days a week. I have friends who are big wine geeks, so sometimes we’ll be tasting, and each person winds up drinking a bottle.

So many people think that drinking is bad for you, but it can be healthy. Like in Italy, in the Dolomites, people are active and wine is part of an everyday life. I was just there visiting a winery, Mezzacorona, near Lake Garda, where people go paddleboarding, and at the foot of the Dolomites, where the locals go hiking and cycling. The two worlds of wine and an active outdoor lifestyle coexist; drinking a glass of wine puts you in touch with that world, not in conflict with it.  

How did you wind up in the world of wine?

When I was young, I was drinking to get drunk. Even though I would push myself athletically, I was still binge drinking. In my early twenties, I was in a bad car wreck and took six months off to see if I had a drinking problem and started to cycle, which got me into sports.

It’s interesting that your drinking brought you into fitness and fitness brought you back into drinking.

[Laughs] That’s exactly what happened! I didn’t know what to do with all this excess energy, and I was putting it into the wrong direction. I grew up with a wine cellar in my basement, and it’s always been part of my life, but I got confused. Once I channeled my energy into a sport, I could appreciate [alcohol]. Now it’s this nice balance.

How do you drink as both a performance athlete and a professional?

I mainly drink wine, but I love whiskey; I’m a big bourbon and rye drinker. My friend owns a tequila company, and I’ve got a gorgeous bottle of anejo, and I’ll drink that too.

Does what you drink—spirits versus wine—affect how you drink?

If it’s summer and I’m training, I’ll drink white wine because it’s lower in sugar and lower in alcohol and I can monitor it. With spirits, I have to be careful, but with wine, I can drink till the cows come home.

What does moderation mean to you?

For me, it’s being self-aware and drinking consciously—being present in the moment of drinking and not drinking on autopilot. It’s thinking about why you’re pouring that second glass of wine. Did you really want that glass or are you even aware that you’re pouring one? And if you are, it’s really enjoying it. If you’re withholding something you want, sometimes it lends to excess.

Do you have any rules in how you drink? For example, do you avoid mixed drinks?

I’m a real purist. I drink my coffee black; I don’t want ice in my whiskey. I don’t drink cocktails or sangria—there’s so much sugar in alcohol as there is. Sometimes I’ll taste it, but I won’t drink it. As a rule, I typically only drink things straight-up: sake, wine, whiskey, gin and tonic. Once you add extra sugar, you’re asking for a hangover.

How is wine a part of your lifestyle?

My lifestyle is definitely detox to retox. Athletics keeps me grounded and clear; I’m like a child if I don’t get to work out, and drinking is the same thing. It’s not a reward; it’s a pleasure.

People tend to think, If I work out and I hate it, I will reward myself with a drink. If you can find a sport or activity you enjoy and don’t think of drinking as a reward for your hard efforts, [look at it as] another thing to enjoy. People say they’re not drinking “to be good,” but I ask: Are you being good to yourself?

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