Running and Caffeine: All You Need to Know
Many people swear that a cup of coffee first thing in the morning makes them nicer to be around. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is only relevant to night owls. Countless early-morning runners won’t even consider lacing up without chugging a mug of pre-run java. Sound familiar? It should. A staggering 10 million tonnes of coffee is consumed globally each year – that’s equivalent to 145 million bags of joe.
And even if coffee isn’t your thing, many get their buzz from a number of other sources. This includes black tea, green tea, dark chocolate, and a whole range of caffeine-containing gels, bars, chews and drinks. So the question that pops to mind is this: Does caffeine have a place in a balanced, healthy diet? Can it impact on running performance? And does caffeine have any less-than-ideal long-term health consequences? Let’s find out.
The Low-Down on Caffeine
So what exactly is caffeine? It’s a bitter, white crystalline organic compound that is naturally found in the seeds, nuts or leaves of a number of native South American and East Asian plants. The purpose of this compound is twofold: To protect the seeds and fruits of these plants from predators, and to discourage the germination of competing neighboring plants.
Humans quickly caught on to the fact that this compound prevents drowsiness, and started benefiting from it in this way. So much so that in 2014 it was estimated that 85% of American adults ingest at least some form of caffeine every day.
The Impact of Caffeine on Running
Far from seeing caffeine or coffee as a forbidden fruit, many sports nutritionists regard it as an ergogenic aid. Which basically means that caffeine is regarded by some as a substance that can either directly or indirectly enhance sports performance. In fact, it is estimated that more than two thirds of Olympic athletes use caffeine to (legally) pimp their performance!
But how does this work, you ask? Well, first of all, caffeine is quickly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, which means that it goes to work fast. And secondly, it acts as a mild stimulant that impacts on a number of systems within the human body. These impacts include the following, even though some of the studies listed do have some shortcomings:
- Caffeine leads to the increased circulation of free fatty acids, which, in effect, means that it encourages the body to use fat as a fuel source. As a result, glycogen stores are conserved, which is good news for those running to lose weight!
- It’s been found that caffeine supplementation at a dose of 3 to 6 mg/kg leads to a reduction in perceived effort. Which means that a pre-run cup of coffee may make a hard workout feel considerably easier than it actually is.
- Some studies have also found that caffeine can help you keep going for longer. Study participants could, on average, cycle 15 minutes longer after taking 330 mg of caffeine before their exercise sessions.
- If you live in a warm climate, listen up. It has been found that ingesting caffeine may allow you to keep going for longer in hot weather.
- Caffeine improves neuro-muscular coordination. Which boils down to your leg muscles firing faster and with more force as a result of improved “communication” between the brain and these muscles.
- As far as matters of the mind go, caffeine has been found to boost mental awareness, improve mood and fuel your desire to train hard. And even better: Caffeine causes a higher concentration of endorphins or “feel-good” hormones in the brain than simply working out. Wahoo!
- Caffeine may also help you clock that elusive PB. In one study researchers found that 5K race times improved by 1 to 1.1% in athletes who took caffeine before their race. This translates to running 10 to 13 seconds faster over the 5K distance.
- One study found that caffeine can enhance post-run recovery, especially if taken in conjunction with carbohydrates.
A Word of Caution
From the above it is clear that the moderate consumption of caffeine can be beneficial to athletic performance. Ingesting too much caffeine, however, is not. The regular over-consumption of caffeine may lead to long-term sleeplessness, excruciating headaches, jitters and caffeine dependency. But how much is too much, you ask? As a general rule of thumb, 3 to 6 mg of caffeine is recommended per kilogram of body weight. Of which the upper limit translates to approximately three cups of coffee containing 120 mg of caffeine per cup per day for the average 60 kg person. Most health institutions advocate no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. And if you’re afraid that you’ll miss out on performance benefits by limiting your intake, don’t fear. These benefits do not increase with an increased caffeine intake.
It is also not recommended to supplement with caffeine before every workout. Save sport-specific supplementation for race days only. Some suggest that regular caffeine consumption may lead to a decrease in the concentration of antigen-stimulated T cells. Which basically means that you’ll be more susceptible to getting ill. Others also feel that if you constantly use caffeine as a way to overcome fatigue while running, you might become dependent on that stimulation in order to complete running sessions.
And while for some the positive performance impacts of caffeine come at little or no cost, others are not so lucky. Persons with pre-existing heart conditions, expectant moms and individuals sensitive to caffeine or taking certain medication are advised to steer clear or limit their intake. Be sure to check with your caregiver if unsure.
So if you turn to coffee for that extra bit of oomph before a race, the good news is that you needn’t kick the habit. Just remember that the general rule of nourishing your body well in order for it to perform well still stands firm. It’s therefore best to avoid processed, sugar-laden drinks, gels and bars with endless ingredient lists and a bunch of artificial flavorants and preservatives. Instead, opt for organic, fair trade coffee, tea and products and always stick to the recommended daily caffeine doses.
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