Whether it’s the newest high performance running shoe or ditching gluten, runners are seemingly always looking for something that will give them an edge over the competitors. But if you really want to perk up your exercise and races, science still shows that the legal stimulant called caffeine can put more zip in your stride.
Case in point: a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences discovered that volunteers who supplemented with caffeine before a 90-minute treadmill run reported feeling less fatigued and exerted while also telling that their workout was more pleasurable. Researchers at Georgia State University determined that consuming caffeine before workout can have a positive impact on muscular contraction strength in knee extensor muscles, which would obviously be of benefit to runners.
Heck, it could even help you keep at your race weight. In an International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism study, researchers discovered that the pre-exercise jolt (4.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight) could increase post-exercise resting metabolism – the number of calories you burn just loafing around – by up to 15%.
One of the primary mechanisms behind caffeine’s ability to ramp up your runs is through its power to encourage function of your central nervous system. In short, caffeine can crowd out a relaxing brain chemical known as adenosine, which helps make you feel more peppy when pounding the pavement. But getting the most out of using caffeine as an ergogenic aid requires more than just jogging up to a Starbucks and ordering a venti. Here are some important guidelines that you should take heed of.
Find your dose
Studies suggest that for caffeine to noticeably rev up your exercises and races you need about 2 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. That’s 130 to 380 milligrams for a 140 lb. runner. Brewed coffee ranges from 60 to 180 milligrams in a typical ¾ cup serving. Begin in the lower range of this dose recommendation during exercise and work up from there to find the level that gives you a boost without any undesirable side effects. Everyday coffee drinkers, however, will probably need the higher end of this range to experience a workout boost in comparison with those who usually shy away from the brew.
Caffeine isn’t just in coffee
Depending on the preparation method, brand, and variety, the caffeine content in a mug of java can vary significantly (robusta beans have more than arabica). The upshot is that you can never be completely sure exactly how much you’re getting. That’s why some athletes use caffeine-enhanced products like chews, mints, capsules and gels that provide a standardized dose. While so-called “energy drinks” can provide a hefty caffeine dose, their sky-high levels of sugar outweigh any benefits.
Cold brewed coffee
Not just for hipsters, cold brewed coffee may provide athletes with benefits that go beyond typical java. The term “cold brew” is used for grounds that have been soaked in cold water for up to 24 hours and then filtered versus traditional coffee, which is brewed quickly using hot water. When cold water is used to steep coffee grounds less acid is released, so it can work milder on your digestive system.
Also, the longer brewing time and higher grounds-to-water ratio can give the cool brew more of a caffeine jolt per ounce than regular joe. Just take into account the high amounts of sugars pumped into some versions. Instead, try a mixture of cold brew coffee and unsweetened milk.
Developing a caffeine tolerance
As with all drugs, it’s possible to develop a tolerance to caffeine. To experience a workout kick, heavy everyday coffee drinkers who are serious about using caffeine as an ergogenic aid should taper down how much they consume for several days prior to a big race and save higher doses of caffeine for before and during actual events. You should experience the desired stimulant effects again, just like a caffeine novice would. But don’t go cold turkey as withdrawal symptoms such as pounding headaches can interfere with exercise.
Sensitivity to caffeine
Sensitivity to caffeine can differ quite significantly from one person to another based on genetics. If you feel overly anxious, jittery, or notice your heart pumping like a race horse, reduce your dosage of caffeine before a training or consider giving it a pass. Before doubling down on espressos on race day, it’s a good idea to test the effect caffeine has on your body and performance during race-pace training sessions. People with existing heart arrhythmias, anxiety conditions, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure should consult with their doctor before deciding for caffeine supplementation.
Caffeine isn’t a diuretic
It’s a myth that caffeine acts as a diuretic thereby increasing the risk for dehydration during workout. That’s because during exercise blood is diverted to working muscles so the kidneys don’t receive their normal blood flow, which means less urine overall is produced. The upshot is that you don’t need to be any more diligent about fluid consumption to avoid performance sapping dehydration during a run if you supplement with caffeine.
First exercise, then drink coffee
Keep in mind that no amount of caffeine is going to turn a donkey into a thoroughbred. Caffeine should only be used as a final touch to a solid training program. While caffeine can improve performance at the most by about 5%t, on the flip side a well-planned coaching program can bring about improvements of upwards of 50%.
Avoid coffee at night
If your running sessions occur at night you may want to keep the caffeinated gels at home. The European Journal of Applied Physiology discovered that athletes who used caffeine to improve their performance during evening workout also experienced significant sleep disturbances such as delayed onset of sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of four to six hours. So unlike sugars in sports drinks and bars, it continues to energize long after consumption, which could upset your sleeping time. This is important considering that proper sleep is a key element of training recovery and better performance.
Consume caffeine at the right times
Guzzling back a coffee on your way to the starting line isn’t the best way to reap the full performance-boosting benefits of caffeine. The stimulant can take anywhere from between 45 to 60 minutes to peak in your blood. So if you drink coffee too close to a run that lasts not much longer than an hour in length you won’t likely get its full impact. The upshot is that you want to plan ahead and consume your caffeine about 30 minutes to one hour before you lace up your running shoes so it can put extra zip in your stride from the get-go. For runs like a marathon, which can last a few hours, you can try taking half of your caffeine before workout and the rest during the exercise, making sure to consume caffeine when there’s more than an hour left in your run so it has time to peak in your blood and do its task. This is a good strategy for runners who get all jittery with full doses of caffeine.