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Let’s talk about coffee and running

It took me a long time to embrace the morning cup of coffee (or two). A few years ago I finally broke through my distaste for both the smell and the taste of the popular wake-me-up morning beverage.

But now, after my weekday morning workouts, I start my days regularly with coffee and usually a bowl of fruit, granola, chia and hemp seeds, and more. On weekends, I generally have coffee as well as peanut butter on toast before my long run.

For runners and other endurance athletes, coffee represents more than just a soothing cup of hot water mixed with bean remnants. Some count on it for a performance boost while others save it for post-workout. Whether you reach for coffee or another form of caffeine, here is a look at how it boosts endurance and how you can use it effectively.

How does caffeine boost endurance?

Research indicates there are many ways in which caffeine, whether it is in coffee or not, boosts running workouts, races and other endurance activities. Caffeine has been found to:

  1. Actually improve performance. This research suggests that “performance benefits can be seen with moderate amounts (~3 body mass) of caffeine. Furthermore, these benefits are likely to occur across a range of sports, including endurance events, stop-and-go events (e.g., team and racquet sports), and sports involving sustained high-intensity activity lasting from 1-60 min (e.g., swimming, rowing, and middle and distance running races).”

  2. Keep you alert. Results from this study suggest that “acute ingestion of a caffeine-containing energy drink can enhance resistance exercise performance to failure and positively enhance psychophysiological factors related to exertion in trained men.”

  3. Help your body burn fat first. Caffeine allows your body to use fat as fuel, allowing it to conserve glycogen, which is an additional fuel source for the body. The longer the athlete delays muscle glycogen depletion, the longer he or she can perform at a high level before fatigue sets in.

  4. Burn carbs more quickly. In 2008, researchers at the University of Birmingham in England studied the effect the stimulant had during exercise on exogenous carbohydrate oxidation, the rate at which consumed carbs are burned.

How to use caffeine before and during workouts

With science supporting the use of caffeine, the question then becomes what are the best ways to put this to use for your training.

Athletes can certainly pick options that suit their taste the best. Coffee, tea or an energy gel will all do the trick. Just be sure to use caffeine in moderation to avoid the jitters or a poorly timed crash.

As I prepare for my first race of the season, I’ve been having a half cup of coffee with my peanut butter and toast in advance of my Saturday long runs. During the runs, I supplement with Honey Stinger gluten-free waffles and gel. The gels have 32 milligrams of caffeine and provide a good boost mid-workout.

Certainly experimenting well before race day is advisable, whether you are testing caffeine or nutrition that you will use during the event. Here is one way to decide for yourself on the merits of caffeine and how much works best for you.

  1. Establish a baseline. Take a regular workout that requires a solid effort. Perhaps a midweek run with sustained speedwork or a series of hill workouts. Early in your training, put in a hard effort to establish a baseline. The effort should not be all-out, race day pace. But it should be at a high effort level. Record your information related to time and pace, but also your physical exertion during the workout. Did you feel energized? Or was it lacking?

  2. Experiment with caffeine. About a month later, do the same workout with as many variables the same as the baseline effort. This time, however, add a cup of coffee (or tea) into the mix. After the workout, record the same information as before and also note how the caffeine worked in your system. Did you experience any GI distress? How did your energy level fare? (Note: Focus the comparison more on how you feel and the effort level, rather than your pace. After a month of training, your pace should be improving, regardless of the caffeine.)

  3. Adjust and experiment again. About a month later, repeat the workout with any changes to the caffeine that you want to use as a comparison. For example, did a cup of coffee trigger gut issues? Try this workout with a half cup of coffee. Did you not feel as energized as you thought? Bump up the caffeine for this workout. Once again, record everything and a clearer picture of what works for you should emerge.

  4. Mimic race day. As you get closer to race day, apply what you’ve learned to the workouts that are most specific to your race day expectation. For example, if you are training for a marathon, you will likely have a 20 or so mile run on the training calendar around three weeks before race day. This is an excellent time do a dry run for race day. In your morning routine, take the caffeine that you have determined works best for you and mimic as much as possible of other variables that you will experience on race day. After your workout, record what worked and what didn’t.

And don’t worry about breaking rules on race day. Based on International Olympic Committee rules, athletes are allowed up to 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter urine. That limit should allow athletes to consume their regular caffeine of choice before competition without repercussion.

The steps outlined above should give you a good idea on what works best for you. As you get closer to race day, practice and adjust as needed. Don’t overthink it. Caffeine will boost your performance. But most important is your training. If you’ve been consistent with your training, you have set yourself up to succeed on race day.

And when you have that successful race, celebrate! Cups up!


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