When I stumble down stairs each morning, the first thing I do is make a bee line to the coffee maker. Without it, my day just isn’t the same. I love the nutty aroma, the familiar morning ritual of preparing the perfect cup of coffee, and the way it helps bring my day into focus after just a few sips. Holding a warm cup of coffee in my hands on a cold morning is one of life’s little pleasures.
Coffee can help you run faster too. Numerous studies have documented a significant positive effect on endurance performance when subjects are given caffeine before a workout or race. It may be the most effective and legally permissible performance enhancing drug on the market.
How Coffee Boosts Running Performance
So what exactly happens in the caffeinated brain of a runner? According to researchers from Coventry University, you can expect improved focus, reduced perception of effort, and a general mood improvement. Basically, running will feel easier and you’ll be more intent on hitting your defined goals. So, if you’re heading to the track, you might want to consider a cup of Joe to help you zero in on your target.
Caffeine has also been proven to enhance reaction time, reduce negative effects of running in the heat, and even help runners to burn fats more efficiently. Sound too good to be true? I haven’t even talked about recovery after the race. In a study conducted by researchers at the School of Medical Sciences, RMIT University in Australia, it was discovered that glycogen stores are replaced 66% faster when athletes were given a recovery drink containing caffeine and carbohydrates, rather than carbohydrates alone.
Caffeine works quickly and lasts for several hours after being ingested, so the timing of your pre-race coffee isn’t really all that important. A 2008 study on the effects of caffeine on a runner’s 5K performance revealed some interesting data. Runners who ingested caffeine before their 5K race saw finish times improve by about 1%. That doesn’t sound like much, but it could lower your personal best from 20:00 to 19:47.
The sweet spot for caffeine dosage and performance enhancement is five milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram of body weight . For a 150 lb. runner, that equates to 340 milligrams of caffeine. The USDA cites an 8-ounce cup as having 95 milligrams of caffeine. So, that means 3 or 4 cups should do the trick. Of course, some coffee has higher caffeine content. In general, consuming more than 400 milligrams of caffeine is considered a health risk, and adds no more benefit to your running performance.
Dehydration is a concern among manner runners. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is not a concern. While caffeinated drinks may have a mild diuretic effect, they don’t seem to increase the risk of dehydration. A 2003 study reports that acute ingestion of caffeine in large doses (at least 250-300 mg, equal to the amount found in 2-3 cups of coffee or 5-8 cups of tea) results in a short-term stimulation of urine output in people who’ve been deprived of caffeine for a period of days or weeks. In other words, if you’re a coffee drinker, any urge to ‘eliminate’ will be greatly reduced by regular consumption.
There are other risks in taking caffeine before a race. The side effects include headaches, dizziness, anxiety, gastrointestinal distress, and heart palpitations. Caffeine is also a mild laxative, which could have you racing for the sidelines. I would try running with the aid of caffeine in whatever form you choose (gels, pills, coffee, tea) before race day. You never know how you might react.
In my experience, I’ve found that a single morning cup of coffee is enough to get me going each morning. If I drink another cup, I’m ready to race. Not every workout demands an advantage. I would suggest reserving a caffeine-fueled run for extremely hard workouts and races. Your running focus and stamina will improve with regular training alone.