Posted on August 22, 2013
Caffeine is one of the most researched and most widely used ergogenic aids in the world and it is widely accepted that caffeine can enhance performance in endurance events. It was actually banned by the US and World Anti-Doping Associations at certain levels up until 2004. The ban was only really lifted due to the widespread accepted use of caffeine by people in their everyday lives. Currently all elite athletes are free to use caffeine as they see fit to benefit their performance and most are taking advantage. A 2011 investigation found that 3 out of 4 olympic athletes had consumed caffeine before or during competition with the highest percentage of users being found in the endurance sports events.(1) Many that avoid caffeine cite that it is a diuretic and will dehydrate them, but a study out of the University of Connecticut found that caffeine consumption does not result in a water-electrolyte imbalance or hyperthermia during exercise.(2) The mild diuretic effects of caffeine were very similar to those of water itself.
So what are the benefits of caffeine?
The primary benefit of caffeine ingestion for endurance performance is a reduced rate of perceived exhaustion (RPE)(3) due to an increased concentration of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are what that contribute to the feeling of a runner's high during intense prolonged exercise. They cause a reduction in the sensation of pain while also improving mood and providing a sense of well-being. It basically makes going faster feel easier.
As a stimulant, caffeine also offers increased wakefullness and alertness, which can be useful for athletes who frequently have early morning races. It also increases focus, coordination, reaction time, and provides a psychological readiness to invest physical and mental effort.(5) These components comprise an ideal mental state for an athlete to put forth and maintain their best race effort.
Caffeine also increases the amount of fatty acids in the bloodstream, which increases fat burning and helps conserve muscle glycogen stores. This takes effect from the start of exercise, but the true benefit is only fully realized during extended endurance efforts like a marathon or an Ironman triathlon where your body would begin to fully use up it's glycogen stores and have fat become more important as a fuel. It is through this glycogen conservation along with some benefit from a reduced RPE that caffeine can also increase an athlete's time to exhaustion.(4)
There are also risks associated with caffeine use.
Caffeine dependency is a well known possible side effect that millions of coffee drinkers globally can attest to. Consistent intake of caffeine leads to a dependency where drinking it becomes more of a necessity to feel alert and awake. A tolerance can continue build where you may require more and more caffeine to get that same alert and awake feeling. Not getting your caffeine dose for the day sends you into withdrawal.
People with sensitivities to caffeine and those who have overdosed can have symptoms such as anxiety, heart palpitations, nausea and vomiting, jitters, sweating, dizziness, increased heart rate, trouble sleeping, and even cardiac arrest. You shouldn't be trying anything new on race day so you should be able to determine if you have a sensitivity to caffeine prior to using it for a race effort. Athletes who can use caffeine should be sure to monitor what they are ingesting to keep track of their total caffeine intake and avoid an overdose. Depending on body weight and tolerance, doses of caffeine from roughly 250 to 500mg can begin to produce some of the symptoms mentioned above.
Caffeine is overall a very useful supplement to use for endurance athletes. The key to caffeine use is moderation. Regular coffee and tea drinkers may find certain effects like wakefullness from caffeine to be reduced as their bodies will have built up tolerances and they will require more to feel the same effects as before, but they will still receive the main benefits that affect endurance performance such as increased time to exhaustion.(4) A brief respite from caffeine use for a few days before a race can help bring back the full burst that caffeine can provide. Most endurance athletes should be able to integrate caffeine into their race day plans without issue and reap the benefits.
Runner's High developed a pre-race mix called Race Primer to provide athletes with all the essential race day nutrition that enhances endurance performance and caffeine is one of those ingredients. A single scoop of Runner's High Race Primer offers 100mg of caffeine and up to 2 servings can be taken depending on body weight providing as much as 200mg. Caffeine is just one piece of the puzzle to get your body in it's best race day form, but it is an essential one.
1. Del Coso J, Muñoz G, Muñoz-Guerra J. Prevalence of caffeine use in elite athletes following its removal from the World Anti-Doping Agency list of banned substances. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011 Aug;36(4):555-61.
2. Ganio MS, Klau JF, Casa DJ, Armstrong LE, Maresh CM. Effect of caffeine on sport-specific endurance performance: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):315-24.
3. Doherty M, Smith PM. Effects of caffeine ingestion on rating of perceived exertion during and after exercise: a meta-analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2005 April;15, 69-78.
4. McLellan TM, Bell DG. The impact of prior coffee consumption on the subsequent ergogenic effect of anhydrous caffeine. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004 Dec;14(6):698-708.
5. Duncan MJ, Smith M, Cook K, James RS. The acute effect of a caffeine-containing energy drink on mood state, readiness to invest effort, and resistance exercise to failure. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Oct;26(10):2858-65.