Caffeine and Running
Even the swiftest of runners can easily be beaten without their daily cup of coffee or caffeine fix. Some runners rely on caffeine to get them up and out the door while others find caffeine to be the only stimulant protecting them from having Swingline tattooed across their forehead.
Luckily, if you’re a caffeine addict, or even if you only enjoy the occasional cup of coffee, using caffeine strategically is one of the most effective “legal” performance enhancers you can use to help your running.
Yup, that morning cup o’joe can actually make you a better runner.
You don’t have to take my word for it though. Recent studies show that more than two-thirds of Olympic athletes use caffeine to increase their performance. You can be quite sure that if Olympic athletes are using caffeine, it works.
However, you don’t need to be an Olympic caliber runner to benefit from the strategic use of caffeine. In this article, I am going to outline the specific benefits of using caffeine, what to watch out for, and give you some detailed guidelines for how to properly implement caffeine into your training and racing.
Caffeine as a performance enhancer for runners
Caffeine is actually one of the most widely researched areas of sports performance, perhaps because so many runners rely on it for more than just its potential performance enhancing benefits. So, here’s how caffeine can enhance your running performance:
Mental alertness and improved state of mind
Just as your morning cup of coffee helps you get mentally ready to face the day, research shows that caffeine boosts your mental alertness, improves your mood, and boosts your desire to run hard. This is a great benefit for those mornings you’re facing a tough speed workout and you just don’t want to get out the door, or if you’re an evening runner who needs a mental boost after a long day at work.
Even better, for longer events, such as the marathon and half marathon, caffeine reduces a runner’s perception of effort. Simply speaking, it makes running fast feel easier. Moreover, caffeine increases the concentration of endorphins in the brain – yup, those same exact hormones that produce a runner’s high.
For marathon runners, perhaps the most important benefit of caffeine is that it enhances your body’s use of fat as a fuel source, thereby conserving glycogen. In marathon racing, the conservation of glycogen is critical to performance over the last 10km of the race.
It’s not exactly clear how caffeine increases fat utilization. However, most researchers agree that caffeine increases the number of fatty acids in the blood stream, which increases the speed at which your body can covert fat to usable energy.
Increases sprint speed and power
Caffeine also enhances reaction time and improves neuromuscular coordination (how fast your brain can send a signal to your muscles to contract and relax). While this is great for 200 meter sprinters, it can also be beneficial to long distance runners. Improved neuromuscular coordination allows your leg muscles to fire faster and more forcefully, which means you’ll be more efficient, i.e. you can run faster with less effort.
Caffeine and the heat
Another recent study looked at the effect of consuming a caffeinated sports drink on performance in a warm environment. Cyclists who ingested caffeine completed 15 to 23 percent more work in hot weather than cyclists who used either water or a traditional sports beverage. Moreover, the cyclists who used caffeine had a lower level of perceived exertion.
Improves 5k time
While so far we’ve looked at how caffeine can potentially improve varying aspects of running performance, it’s also important to examine if these improvements translate into actual results on race day.
Luckily, a group of researchers studied this exact question. Using a 5km race as a test run, the researchers found that runners who used caffeine prior to their 5k race improved by 1.0 to 1.1 percent (this means a 20-minute 5k runner would run 10-13 seconds faster just by using caffeine). While this isn’t a huge improvement, it does prove that the science translates to real-life running situations.
Caffeine to recover
While research has clearly shown that caffeine can boost performance, what about using caffeine after a run (whether it be an ingredient in your favorite post run beverage or the result of your cup of coffee on the way to work)?
Caffeine has been shown to enhance recovery when used in conjunction with carbohydrates. Researchers have found that having a drink with caffeine rebuilds glycogen stores 66 percent more than a drink with just carbohydrates.
Caffeine for runners – hydration and health
The biggest fear in using caffeine when running has been the diuretic effect and therefore possible dehydration issues. I’ll admit, this is what kept me from utilizing caffeine when I was running at an elite level. However, it turns out my fears were unwarranted.
Caffeine and dehydration
While caffeine is a diuretic, exercise counteracts its negative impact on hydration. In a recent scientific review, researchers from the University of Connecticut found that, contrary to popular beliefs, caffeine consumption does not result in (1) water-electrolyte imbalances (2) hyperthermia and (3) reduced exercise-heat tolerance.
Most studies I found report that a runner can safely have up to 550 milligrams of caffeine (or about five cups of coffee) without affecting hydration levels.
Caffeine and Health
In moderation, caffeine consumption does not cause any health problems. The health benefits of coffee come from its caffeine content and its unique blend of antioxidants. However, heavy caffeine use can cause or exacerbate problems ranging from headache to insomnia, and it is possible to become physically dependent on the drug. So, as with any nutritional advice, moderation is key.
How to use caffeine to enhance your running performance
Now that we’ve confirmed caffeine can help your performance, it’s critical to discuss the specific protocols for getting the most of your caffeine supplementation.
Caffeine dose for runners
The same study that measured the impact of caffeine on 5k performance found that five milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram of body weight (2.3lbs) was the ideal supplementation. So, a 150lb runner (68 kilograms) would supplement with 340 milligrams of caffeine – about 16-17oz of drip brewed coffee.
Most health organizations recommend no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per dose. So, err on the conservative side if you’re heavier or you’re concerned about any health-related issues.
Caffeine is absorbed quickly and lasts for hours at a time, so timing isn’t critical. You can ingest caffeine immediately before and during your races without worrying about a delay in the effects.
When should runners use caffeine
Specific caffeine supplementation for performance should only be used during races. If you’re a routine coffee drinker and waking up is impossible without your cup o’joe, than you can stay on your normal routine. However, it’s not advised to supplement before every workout.
Workouts are not races. Unlike a race, when you want to run as hard and fast as you can, workouts are usually sub-maximal efforts designed to hit a specific physiological energy system. Supplementation to boost your performance shouldn’t be necessary.
Don’t try something in a race you haven’t done before
The age-old maxim applies to caffeine supplementation. If you’ve never experimented with using caffeine before a hard workout, don’t let the first time you try it be during a race. You may find it gets you too jittery or gives you an upset stomach. You don’t want to ruin all your hard training because you took too much caffeine.
How to get your caffeine as a runner
While coffee is the most common source of caffeine, many runners can find coffee to be hard on the stomach. For example, coffee gives me heartburn if I drink it before I run. So, you may need to experiment with what works for you. Here are some good sources of caffeine other than coffee:
Red Bull (1 can) – 80 MG
Caffeine pills – varies
Clif shot blocks (3 bloks) – 50 MG
Fast Lane Tea – 100 MG
Do you need to curtail caffeine intake before a big race?
Surprisingly, the answer to this question is no. Research has shown that runners receive the same performance boost from caffeine whether they are habitual coffee drinkers or they drink only the occasional cup of tea.
However, humans do habituate to some of caffeine’s effects, such as elevated pulse and blood pressure. So, while I don’t suggest it’s healthy to have a direct line to Columbia for your daily fix, you’ll still get the performance enhancing benefits of caffeine if you drink more than the occasional cup.
After reading this dearth of information about caffeine for runners, I hope I have answered any questions you’ve had about the potential benefits and dangers of using caffeine to improve your race results. If you have questions or have a different view, we would love to hear them in the comments section. As a note, this article was written sans caffeine