Performance-enhancing drugs have been in the news for the past couple of decades as various athletes—including plenty of world-class runners—have attempted all sorts of means to boost performance. Some have been legal; some are not. (See Barry Bonds, Ben Johnson, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Lance Armstrong, Nellie Cruz, ad nauseum).
But the most most popular drug in the world is perfectly legal and has very real performance benefits for runners. It’s called caffeine and drinking the proper amount of coffee at the proper time before a marathon, half marathon or even a long run can give you an appreciable boost.
Still, you shouldn’t expect to see a coffee machine at an aid station at next year’s 3M Half or Austin Marathon, but the evidence is solid: Caffeine will extend your endurance.
Before we get into it, moderate use of coffee has been given a clean bill of health by every major health research group which has studied it. Good thing as Americans are the greatest consumers of coffee in the world, drinking more than half of the world’s coffee. With a coffee shop on seemingly every street corner in Austin, caffeine consumption continues to rise.
Coffee is simply one of the habits of modern life. Fortunately, one or two cups a day is generally considered to be perfectly fine and doesn’t pose a health risk to adults.
Although coffee was once considered to be off-limits to runners, it is now viewed as an effective ergogenic aid (that is, a substance that improves performance). In study after study over the last 35 years, caffeine has proven to increase endurance in aerobic exercise lasting longer than two hours.
This is definitely good news for marathoners who are looking for any legal way to run better. To maximize the benefits of caffeine, a runner should consume one or three cups of coffee about 30 to 60 minutes before running.
The smaller you are, the less you need to drink. But a 120-pound runner would need about one or two cups of coffee, while a 175-pounder would need about three cups to reap the full benefits.
The reason endurance is extended by drinking coffee is because caffeine increases the early release of free fatty acids into the blood. The increase in fatty acid availability leads to increased muscle fat oxidation and a subsequent decrease in carbohydrate oxidation which spares muscle glycogen (the carbohydrates stored in your muscles that serve as the primary fuel for running) for use later during running. The extra storage of glycogen delays the onset of fatigue in a runner.
Simply put, the caffeinated runner can run longer without getting as tired. Almost all the research confirms that drinking coffee before running allows the runner to run longer. There hasn’t been any conclusive research yet which shows what happens when runners take caffeine during races or long runs (usually through energy gels which contain about 25 to 50 milligrams of caffeine per packet), but some runners report it helps increase their mid-race focus and motivation. This makes sense since caffeine quickly effects the central nervous system by stimulating it.
But increasing a marathoner’s ability to focus in the last few miles is a huge benefit. When a marathoner has depleted his glycogen stores in the latter stages of a race, the mind becomes greatly effected and runners find it difficult to focus and become woozy.
Many marathoners who take energy gels with caffeine (not all energy gels have caffeine) during the race report feeling better immediately after ingesting them. It’s doubtful any runners will drink a cup of hot coffee at the 20-mile mark of a marathon (ultramarathoners will), but some runners do drink cold iced tea during races (handed to them by family or stashed before the race) which has as much caffeine as an energy gel. Plus, the sugar in it may also provide a stimulus.
While it’s certainly true that caffeine is a diuretic and increases the rate of urination, there is no evidence to suggest that it has a negative effect on hydration status during running.
The key is to experiment with caffeine during your long training runs to see how much you should drink and when, plus whether you also want to use energy gels. Such gels as Carb-Boom, Clif Shot, PowerGel and GU all have caffeine of various amounts in some—but not all—flavors. Check the label to make sure it contains caffeine.
Runners who normally drink coffee probably won’t get as much as a response from the same amount of coffee as a non-caffeine user drinks. In addition, bigger runners need to drink more coffee to get the same effect as a smaller runner.
Again, it takes some experimentation to find the right formula that works for you.
By the way, megadosing does not work. In fact, very high levels of caffeine (about five cups) are banned by the International Olympic Committee. Not that you’ll be checked after the marathon, but it won’t do you any good anyway.
So if you normally drink coffee, try a cup or two before your next long run to see if it helps.