Caffeine: Elixir of Running Performance?

There are a lot of things that runners are constantly telling themselves to add, or more likely drop, to their daily fitness routines. Whatever it is there’s always a nagging shame that a hard change could be made for the betterment of one’s training. Unfortunately that shame can often times revolve around one of the most enticing, delicious, invigorating elixirs on earth…caffeine! Don’t worry dear readers, this will not be a blog about the negatives of caffeine and how you should eliminate it completely from your routine. Instead, I’ll present you with some facts, a dash of figures, and let you come to you own conclusion. 

SPOILER: the conclusion is that your java love is totally acceptable!

  • Caffeine has its positives

Caffeine has the best performance boosting effects in short duration events by stimulating the nervous system to respond with faster, more efficient muscle contractions. However, endurance athletes can also get benefits from caffeine, although slightly different ones. Most studies have shown that caffeine in endurance events serve more as an aid to fatigue resistance (cyclists hit their exhaustion point 15 minutes later with caffeine) and an assistant to limiting perceived exertion. This means that with the proper amount of caffeine consumption before exercise you can last a bit longer and feel a bit fresher at a higher intensity. That 7:00 minute mile is about to feel more like a smooth and relaxed 8:00 minute jaunt!

*BUNK Alert: caffeine within itself doesn’t provide any additional energy to athletes, according to  Emma Barclough, a senior sports nutritionist for Science in Sport, “…over a long period of time, such as a half marathon or above, it helps you maintain a work level.”

  • There is a perfect amount

For maximum benefits in endurance exercises the recommended amount is set at 3 to 6 milligrams per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of bodyweight. Quick and dirty math: take half of your bodyweight and multiply it by 3, 4, 5, or 6 depending on how feisty you’re feeling. Keep in mind that the direct relationship between caffeine consumption and performance effects is not continuous, you won’t necessarily get 10x the positive effects by consuming 10 times the recommended amount.

  • Type does matter

Combined with a moderate amount of carbohydrates, caffeine can have an even more positive effect on endurance acts. Sticking with specific sport-focused products is generally the best bet. Gels (Clif Shot, Maurten or Huma), gums (Run Gum), and energy shots/drink mixes contain a manageable amount of caffeine plus necessary electrolytes and oftentimes carbohydrates without the added sugar content and EXTREME serving size. While most products come in non-caffeinated offerings, a little extra boost from the caffeinated versions are great. Outside of training, coffee and tea are your best bet for simple, yet less than ideal, sources of caffeine for the sake of performance. Avoid the major marketed energy drinks and simply find a brand and style that you enjoy and can get a hold of easily and stick to it! 

  • Every individual reacts differently

As is a very common trend in all that we preach here at the Charge Blog, know your body! Some people may respond to caffeine during performance with increased, focus, alertness and a decrease in perceived fatigue. Others however may very much respond the opposite way with nausea, headaches, the shakes, and bowel issues, all of which will clearly have a negative effect on performance. Training your system to react positively before and during exercise may take some time but could pay dividends. Take time to learn your body’s reaction before adding in caffeine as part of your pre-race or even pre-workout routine.