A double espresso before a race just might do the trick. Good news for the Starbucks generation!
Many studies have showing a link between caffeine and athletic performance, so it’s not surprising that 2/3 of Olympic athletes use it to improve their running performance.
Caffeine is classed as a drug rather than a nutrient, although it’s present in many food-stuffs including coffee, black and green tea, chocolate, cola, energy drinks and gels. And whilst a drug, it was removed from the banned substances list in 2004.
Caffeine acts as a stimulant, it boosts your mental alertness and changes the perception of effort. During exercise caffeine increases the concentration of endorphins in your blood. These endorphins reduce our perception of effort and pain, and create a general sense of well-being. It reduces a runners perception of effort, so will make hard running feel easier.
Most usefully for marathon runners it enhances the body’s use of fat as a fuel. It does this by increasing the amount of fatty acids in the blood, which increases the speed your body can use fat to fuel running, conserving valuable glycogen on a long run.
Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone. If you’re someone who can drink strong coffee late at night and still get a good nights sleep, then you’re a non responder, and caffeine wont have any affect on you or increase your performance. However, if you’re sensitive to caffeine keeps you awake at night then you might see a benefit.
So what should you do?
For short races or training sessions up to 90 minutes take caffeine 15 – 60 minutes before to get best effects. It can take up to 60 minutes for caffeine to be digested and reach its peak concentration.
In longer events, the stimulation effect of caffeine is needed towards the latter stage of a race. Since caffeine is metabolised over time, it’s best to take in the last 5 – 10k of a race or a long training session. You should then be able to keep going at the same pace for longer, at the point when you’d normally feel fatigue.
Caffeine also plays a role in recovery. Research has shown that taking caffeine alongside carbohydrate in a recovery drink boosts glycogen restoration. This might be beneficial if you’ve completed a hard training session and have another later in the day or early the next morning.
Whilst caffeine believed to be a diuretic there’s no evidence that it leads to increase in fluid loss or dehydration during exercise.
How much should you take?
It’s suggested you take 1 – 3 mg caffeine / Kg body weight. For a 70Kg person that’s about 70 – 210 mg, or about 2 cups of coffee. Other options, which are more convenient for racing or taking whilst running include caffeine tablets, shots or caffeinated gels.
In moderation caffeine doesn’t cause any health problems. However the side effects of taking too much caffeine include nausea, irritability, insomnia, trembling and nervousness, and no performance benefits have been shown going above the recommended amount.