Running on Coffee

Caffeine as a training tool

Running of Coffee


The way people talk about coffee makes it sound like some kind of snake oil magic cure-all that can’t possibly be as good as it sounds. “I can’t get going without it”, “I’m smarter after coffee”, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of “I heart coffee” mugs, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. It’s a global obsession that has proven it’s here to stay. I, for one, welcome our caffeinated overlords. Luckily for me and my own personal addiction, the science is starting to show that coffee has some serious health and training benefits.

Historically, coffee has been blamed for stunting growth, blamed for raising blood pressure, and blamed for causing heart attacks. That’s a lot of blame. Lately, however, coffee is recovering its tarnished reputation… it looks like regular coffee drinkers are at reduced risk for MS, cardiovascular disease, melanoma, and more. It looks like regularly drinking coffee might reduce the risk of premature death across the board, reducing all-cause mortality. In one of the few studies that observed non-white populations, the positive effects of drinking coffee extend to populations of colour as well.

There are a few things to consider when looking at coffee’s benefits: people who drink coffee regularly are, at a baseline, at least affluent enough to afford it. Excluding non-coffee drinkers also excludes those who are living in abject poverty as well as people who avoid coffee because of existing medical conditions. Coffee drinkers may also spend a bit more time socializing, which could lead to better emotional health and well-being. One final thing to consider is that athletes who think they’re getting caffeine also perform a bit better, so the placebo effect can be strongly in play in some of these studies. That being said, every study referenced here includes a control group who ingest a similarly-flavoured caffeine-free beverage to inhibit the placebo response possibility.

Aside from increasing alertness, what’s so great about coffee? Quite a bit, actually: trained cyclists were able to cycle 5% faster than a control group in a time trial after ingesting 5mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight. Both competitive and recreational runners perform up to 2% better after ingesting a comparable dose. Caffeine has an ergogenic (energy-creating) effect for efforts lasting up to two hours, and appears to be metabolized similarly in both men and women. That 2%-5% boost in speed could mean the difference between placing and not placing in a competition scenario. Spreading your caffeine consumption out over a longer endurance event appears to be a solid strategy for maximizing power output and endurance.

So if 5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight is good, more would be better, right? Not necessarily. Not only does a 5 mg/kg/BW dose keep your caffeinated urine well below the Olympic doping standards, it seems to be the point at which caffeine’s benefits start to level off. Beyond this dose level, subjects get jittery, have trouble focusing, and experience increased anxiety. These are not great qualities to cultivate during a high-pressure performance situation. Keep in mind as well that to ingest this amount of caffeine from coffee you’re looking at 5-7 8 oz cups, so it’s not an insignificant amount of liquid to be pouring into your system.

Even a much lower dose of about 3 mg/kg/BW appears to be ergogenic… even more so than a dose of 9 mg/kg/BW, without creating the less-fun side effects mentioned above. This lower dose also doesn’t influence heart rate or blood pressure. This would suggest that caffeine interacts directly with the central nervous system rather than the previous theory that caffeine influenced secretion of adrenaline and other catecholamines.

For enhanced athletic performance, some combination of carbohydrates and caffeine seems to be the ideal, although in one study both sucrose and caffeine worked as well as a combination of the two in improving running performance at 80% of VO2 max. Ingesting caffeine and carbs together (in a fed state) could offer a significant boost to your race times. Sport gels that contain both sugar and a caffeine supplement would be a convenient option pre-training or pre-race.

Keep in mind, as pointed out above, that coffee is not the only delivery agent for caffeine, and the amount of coffee you’d need to consume in the hour prior to your race could send you to the bathroom at an awkward moment. Alternatives include caffeine-containing gels or preworkout beverages (these are also easier to manage mid-event than a steaming cup of espresso). For those of us who prefer to go old-school, or who have proven stomachs (and bladders) of steel, caffeine from coffee works just as well as caffeine in supplement form.

You may have read that caffeine’s performance enhancing effect is only really useful for folks who don’t drink coffee daily. Luckily for hardcore addicts, that theory doesn’t appear to hold water. Even if you’re downing multiple cups per day, caffeine as a pre- or mid-workout performance booster will be just as effective. As performance enhancing drugs go, caffeine has stood the test of time and continues to be the drug of choice for many, many professional and recreational athletes. Considering coffee to be a therapeutic intervention to boost athletic performance may be a new approach for some who have previously considered it more of a lifestyle beverage. Judicious mid-race dosing could change the outcome of your next marathon, just do a pre-event trial run to make sure your digestive system is on board with the new plan!

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