The truth is that there are no 100% conclusive studies relating caffeine and athletic performance. But to be quite honest, I got through the training for my first marathon with a lot of luck and about a hundred pots of coffee. You should know, however, that I was running around 5am and then going to a full day of class, then coaching, and then studying - and don't forget having a social life. So did caffeine improve my performance? For me, I think it is the only way I could get myself out the door for that early morning run, with another cup of coffee to get me to Biochem by 8am. That was something I learned about myself. To me, it is important to experiment. I would NEVER recommend drinking coffee for the first time before the race you've been training for. . . you need to slowly integrate it into your training routine. And, don't forget to experiment with amount of time you take in caffeine before you leave for your run.
As for the worry about caffeine being an NCAA banned substance - well it isn't really a worry at all. For an athlete to get in trouble for caffeine, the concentration in the urine would need to exceed 15 micrograms/ml - that's been estimated at over 10 - 12 cups of coffee in about an hour. So steer clear of that and we'll be okay.
So what about increased energy? This is very important: ENERGY COMES FROM CALORIES! When your body does work it burns calories - starting with carbs, moving to fat, and then in rare cases hitting on protein (this is a worst case scenario - you DON'T want to burn your body's protein!). Caffeine has no calories. Caffeine can, however, make you feel more alert by speeding up your heart and respiration and some other of your body's functions. Also, many substances containing caffeine also contain calories. In fact many popular 'running nutrition' products have started including caffeine. One example is GU - Roctane energy gel contains 35 mg of caffeine per serving, regular GU has 20 mg per serving, and GU chomps has 23 mg per serving. Compare this to other products containing caffeine:
- coffee - 90 - 100 mg per cup
- tea - 30 - 70 mg
- soda - 30 - 45 mg
- chocolate bar - 30 mg
And GU isn't your only sports specific option either - There are TONS of products on the market including PowerBar, Cliff Bar, Accel Gel and so many more. That gives you a great chance to experiment with different flavors, textures, and amounts of caffeine!
So, have you made a decision? To ingest caffeine or to not ingest caffeine, that is the question. . . Notice that I haven't given you a real answer - You really need to test this on your own. But I won't leave you hanging! Remember when I told you that there are a lot of studies about caffeine, but none have been 100% conclusive? Well I compiled a short list of pros and cons that different researchers have come up with dealing specifically with caffeine.
- Caffeine may increase adrenaline production - either for a short time (to get you out the door in the morning or ready to race) or a prolonged amount of time (to keep you going mile after mile)
- caffeine may have been shown to stimulate the Central Nervous System - which goes along with increased adrenaline production - this is where that fight or flight response comes into play. When the CNS is stimulated you may feel like you have more energy.
- Caffeine has been shown in some studies to diminish pain - one researcher found that caffeine actually increases serotonin production in the brain, which is something your body releases when you feel happy.
- Caffeine may spare glycogen - glycogen is the storage form of the carbs that your body burns, but your body burns fat more efficiently when the effort put forth is of a longer duration. What this means for you is that normally at mile 16 of a marathon your body is out of glycogen and is burning fat. Some researchers, however, have found that caffeine can cause your body to break into the fat stores earlier, saving glycogen for the end of the race when you will need some energy bursts.
- Caffeine has been shown to increase your VO2 max - this is a fancier way of saying that athletes have reported being able to exercise for a longer period of time before exhaustion or excessive pain sets in.
- Caffeine does not last forever in your body - it may make you feel more alert with more energy at the start of a workout, but once that feel-good feeling wears off you may feel sluggish or experience a 'crash' (or the worst thing that can happen to a long distance runner - you could 'hit the wall' GHASP!!)
- caffeine has not been shown to improve performance in short-burst type exercise - like sprinting or short distance swimming.
- caffeine can speed up some of your bodily functions - this is why we always test things before race day. Plan on a potty stop if you are unsure - remember your body feels different while running anyway, if you add anything to your running routine (even if you drink coffee every morning anyway) you should plan for the worst just in case! Mostly beware that you may feel more dehydrated or you may feel some GI distress.
- some studies have not shown caffeine to increase your VO2 max - keep in mind that pain is very subjective and can be influenced by many different factors. In some studies the placebo had the same effect as the caffeine pills.
- caffeine can effect every person differently - some will feel jittery while their running partners feel a positive energy boost. Just remember to try different forms of caffeine if you want to experiment!
Good luck and Happy running!