The Runner’s Guide to Caffeine

runner caffiene

Just as runners are passionate about running, coffee lovers are passionate about their coffee.

Caffeine is the most widely consumed non-nutritional drug worldwide.  What effect does it have on runners and running performance?

Research shows that without a doubt, caffeine does provide a performance boost (aka ergogenic effect) to participants in a wide variety of sports.  To quote Australian Institute of Sport’s Nutrition Department Head Dr. Louise Burke: “These benefits are likely to occur across a range of sports, including endurance events, stop and go events, and sports involving sustained high-intensity activity lasting 1-60 minutes.”  The breadth of events covered by Dr. Burke’s statement includes every running distance from 400m (one lap around a track) to ultra-marathons.

So how does caffeine enhance performance?  In shorter distances, caffeine increases muscle recruitment.  In longer distances, caffeine spares glycogen use thereby conserving precious “running fuel”.  It engages the nervous system and causes biochemical changes that result in delaying fatigue and reducing the runner’s perception of effort, enabling her to work harder.  For example, caffeine increases the concentration of beta-endorphins thereby reducing the perception of fatigue and creating a positive mood.

What does this research mean in practical terms for most runners?  Ingesting caffeine before an event takes off about one second per minute (a 1.6% improvement) across the entire range of distances.  For example, a woman who runs a half-marathon in 2 hours without caffeine could reduce her time to 1:58 by taking in the appropriate amount of caffeine before her race.

Recent research indicates that genetic differences influence caffeine’s ability to enhance exercise performance (please see the 11th bullet point in Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition News You Can Use).

How much caffeine do you need to ingest to enhance performance? Dr. Burke recommends 1-4 mg of caffeine per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight.  A 60kg (132 lb) woman would take 60-240 mg of caffeine.  A cup of brewed coffee contains about 80 mg of caffeine; a can of cola contains about 40 mg.

Since the ban on caffeine was lifted by the World Anti-Doping Association in 2004, many professional endurance athletes take caffeine to boost performance.

Before you start chugging coffee or popping caffeine pills before your races or tough workouts, please consider………..

Does Caffeine Have Any Side Effects?

Without a doubt.  Caffeine is a mildly addictive drug.  People develop a dependence, tolerance and recurrent desire for caffeine – the criteria for an addiction.

Some of the common side effects include nervousness, anxiety, jitters, insomnia, stomach upset and heart palpitations.

Should Women Be Concerned About Additional Health Issues Related to Caffeine Intake?

Yes.  Caffeine reduces the absorption of calcium.  Women who consume 2 cups of coffee daily (or more) and have low calcium intake (less than 600 mg/day) increase their risk of osteoporosis.

Both the caffeine and tannic acid reduces iron absorption significantly.  One cup of coffee can cut iron absorption by as much as 39%, while tea can reduce it by up to 87%.  Obviously, consumption of coffee or tea should be a concern to those with low iron levels.

Pregnant women who consume more than 300 mg of caffeine daily increase their risk of miscarriage or negatively affecting fetal development.  Nursing mothers pass caffeine to their infants through breast milk.  In some women, caffeine aggravates PMS symptoms.

Carefully weigh the pros and cons if you are considering using caffeine to enhance running performance.  If you decide to try caffeine, test it several times during training prior to your race day.

Of Note to Regular Coffee Drinkers

The ergogenic effect of caffeine is diminished for regular coffee drinkers.  They need more caffeine to get the desired boost.

“I drink coffee before a marathon, just like I drink coffee every day.  It’s part of my normal routine.  I like coffee not because it boosts my energy but rather it helps me go to the bathroom.”

 Bill Rodgers, four time winner of the Boston Marathon


Our request to you – please share your experience (either positive or negative) with drinking a pre-run coffee.

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