For many years now, research has shown the positive influence coffee (or caffeine) can have on physical performance. But how much and why... Well, there is a sweet spot in terms of dose and there are some interesting reasons (if you like a little bit of human biology) as to why it can enhance your performance.
In 2004, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) lifted a restriction for Olympic athletes of using performance enhancing doses of caffeine during competitions. There are multiple complications involved in monitoring caffeine levels in athletes and they understand that caffeine is a part of normal everyday life for a lot of athlete so athletes are currently allowed to enjoy (and use) coffee as they please. In saying that, WADA do still monitor its use to a degree to understand how athletes are using it.
According to WADA, the organization determined that caffeine no longer met at least two of three criteria for inclusion on the prohibited list. The criteria for banning a drug are that:
It has the potential to enhance sport performance
It represents a health risk to the athletes
It violates the spirit of sport
Even if there was a ban put in place, if similar to the previous restriction it would be close to the equivalent of 8 cups of coffee within a few hours. And we all know what that would lead to much quicker than enhancing physical performance... 💩💩💩
How coffee enhances running performance:
It lowers perceived exertion - meaning when you are running, you can go faster or further than normal and it will feel the same or easier than your slower shorter efforts without coffee.
Coffee increases your blood levels of free fatty acids, allowing them to be more available as an energy source while it also preserves glycogen stores - ideal for longer distance running.
Alertness and general awareness, as well as reduced perception of fatigue, are also benefits of coffee. As a lot of us are well aware of this benefit outside of exercise when we need something to just get us through the day!
How much is optimal:
Anything more than 6mg per kilogram of bodyweight has been shown in studies to have no added benefit to performance and for a lot of people it will lead to negative effects. These might include increased heart rate and of course increased gut sensitivity, leading to the "runner's trots".
Please remember these recommendations are for the average person. Coffee affects people in different ways and this needs to be taken into account. I strongly recommend trying what works for you before you drink 5 coffees prior to your marathon and blame me.
When to take caffeine:
Studies show there is a delay of about 30-60 minutes for the caffeine to hit its peak concentration. Therefore, it makes sense to consume 30-60 minutes prior to the start of the exercise/race. For longer races, it is recommended that you plan caffeine intake to stay within your optimal ranges but to take it prior to harder parts of the race or when you are feeling greater levels of fatigue, for example, mile 20 of your marathon. However, the effects of caffeine have been shown to hang around for 5 hours so just top up wisely.
For shorter races, it is certainly most effective to take at least 30 mins prior to the start and get the benefits right from the start.
Is coffee the best form of caffeine?
In short, yes. Chances are, for most of you, your body is used to ingesting and digesting coffee. In terms of effectiveness, it is just as effective as other forms of caffeine. A recent study showed that coffee vrs other caffeinated supplements had very similar effect on performance and both groups performed better than the 'no caffeine' and placebo groups.
But, in saying this, if you have something that works better for you and you have experience with it, by all means use that instead and follow the dosage information above.
Some indication for caffeine sources:
Caffeinated gels 25-50mg per gel
Cola drinks 40-50 mg per 355 ml (12 oz) can
Energy drinks 50-100 mg per 250 ml (8oz) can
Espresso 80-100 mg per cup
Gu, Vanilla 20 mg per gel
Diet Coke 30 mg per can
Pepsi 45 mg per can
Red Bull 80 mg per 250 ml (8oz) can
Starbucks coffee 200 mg per 500ml (16oz) cup
NoDoz max 200 mg per tablet
Caffeine is a personal preference. Dose and effect vary for different people and you need to work it out for yourself. Testing its use in training is a great way to get a feel for how it affects you. The effect of caffeine during exercise can be different to during a day at work or sitting around at home.
Personally, I like to have a medium sized coffee 40 (ish) minutes before a run or race and if it exceeds 2 hours I will definitely have gels with me that will contain some caffeine. Without giving too much away about my bowel habits, my digestive is quite sensitive so ensuring I have adequate time to drink the coffee and relieve myself before the race is essential. Otherwise I can forget any chance of an enhanced performance!
Reach out and get help with supplementation for running if you need it, we would love to help.
Hope this was a helpful resource.