I’m not a coffee drinker and in fact the only time I’ve ever semi-regularly drunk coffee was while I was an undergraduate in college. Even then I wouldn’t drink coffee by itself; I’d mix coffee with hot chocolate for mochas, but this was still just an occasional splurge for me. For one thing, I don’t care for the taste of coffee but also I’m extremely sensitive to caffeine. If I have an iced tea with lunch, I’ll be wired 10 hours later. If I were to have 3 or 4 glasses of iced tea in one sitting, my heart would start skipping beats and I’d feel like my chest was going to explode.
I do drink tea in moderation, however, and I enjoy a cup or two of hot tea in the morning on occasion. The amount of tea I drink varies but lately it seems like I have hot tea about 2-3 mornings a week. I never drink tea more than two days in a row, though, because I’ve done that in the past and that’s all it takes for me to become addicted to caffeine. By the third day if I don’t have caffeine, I’ll have a raging headache and feel terrible. No thanks.
When it comes to caffeine and running (or other endurance activities), several studies have shown that caffeine can in fact give you a bit of a boost for endurance based exercise; however, like many things when it comes to running, it’s complicated. The first report concerning the effects of energy drinks on physical performance was carried out by Alford and co-workers in 2001. These authors found that approximately 1 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight (one 250-mL serving of an energy drink) improved reaction time, alertness and aerobic and anaerobic performance. Conversely, later studies found that 1 mg/kg/caffeine is not enough to see significant extensive improvements in endurance exercise.
This recent study looked at the tolerance of one group of male cyclists who took 3 mg/kg/day of caffeine for 20 days vs. another group of men who took a placebo. The researchers noted improved VO2max for the first 4 days in the caffeine group compared to those taking a placebo, but the benefits seemed to drop off quickly. The researchers also discussed how there are differences in studies like this based on whether participants in the studies take caffeine on a daily basis or not and how much caffeine they consume on a regular basis.
It may seem intuitive that you will benefit from caffeine supplements more if you don’t regularly consume caffeine vs. people that consume caffeine regularly, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Improvements in both people that regularly consume caffeine and those that don’t have been seen in studies on caffeine supplements. It also seems that elites may have smaller improvements in endurance events with caffeine than the average athlete, which is good news for most of us. Remember, too, that until 2004 caffeine was considered a performance-enhancing drug and was not allowed in competitions by elites.
Companies have sold caffeine-containing products geared toward athletes for many years and that just seems to be increasing. Honey Stinger has Energy Chews with 32 mg caffeine per serving and recently released Plus+ Performance Chews with 75 mg caffeine per serving. One tablet of Nuun Sport + Caffeine has 40 mg caffeine, while a serving of Nuun Endurance + Caffeine has 25 mg caffeine. One serving of Tailwind Caffeinated Endurance Fuel has 35 mg caffeine. Gatorade Endurance Energy Gel with Caffeine has 30 mg caffeine. And on and on. I haven’t checked but probably any company that sells electrolyte drinks, gels, and similar products most likely have at least some caffeinated versions in their line of products. For reference, the average cup of brewed coffee has between 95-200 mg of caffeine. The average cup of tea has 25-75 mg of caffeine.
One thing I found out in reading about caffeine is that most studies gave their participants caffeine one hour before exercise. That may or may not work for you personally; I know it’s not feasible for me on most days when I would use caffeine for my runs. Here are my thoughts on that, though: you’re still going to feel the effects of caffeine unless you’re only exercising less than an hour or shortly over an hour. Say for example, you’re going for a 3 hour run and you’re drinking your sports drink with caffeine from the beginning of your run, you’re going to feel the effects, although maybe not within the first hour. For exercise that’s two hours or more, you should feel the effects from the caffeine while you’re still out.
Caffeine has also been touted to reduce muscle soreness after endurance activity but that seems to be even more controversial. Personally, I don’t notice any difference at all in muscle soreness whether I have a sports drink with caffeine or a caffeine-free sports drink. Some people may have reduced muscle soreness, though, since there are studies out there reporting this. Then again, that’s another thing that’s tough to measure without bias because of the placebo effect. Some people may think they’ll be less sore if they think their drink has caffeine in it versus the placebo drink, while others may have it in their heads that caffeine doesn’t reduce muscle soreness and they will report no reduction in muscle soreness (even if their drink had caffeine in it). Again, it’s tricky to measure, like so many other studies of this type.
I say, if you don’t already, have some caffeine prior to your run and see what it does for you. You should give it at least a few weeks to be fair, though, and note how you feel before, during, and after your run. One final thing to remember is that caffeine is a strong stimulant on not only your brain and muscles but other parts of your body as well such as your GI system. If you’ve never experienced “runner’s trots” before, caffeine just may be the stimulus for that to happen if you don’t take care of business before your run.
What about you- are you a big believer in the power of caffeine for endurance activities? Or have you tried it and don’t see a difference? Are you a big coffee drinker but never use supplements or sports drinks with caffeine when you run?