I was recently asked about using coffee as a performance enhancer. Coffee, or rather caffeine, is one of the only legal performance-enhancing drugs not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency at this time. The results of many research studies are clear: caffeine does enhance endurance performance. Caffeine won’t be of any help to sprinters, but might be just the thing to turn a good marathon performance into a great one. The only questions that remain are why, and how much caffeine will do the trick.
There are several mechanisms of action by which caffeine works. The first, which many people are most familiar with, is its stimulant effect on the nervous system. Because of this stimulant effect, fatigue is reduced and mental alertness is increased so you feel less tired. Caffeine has also been found to help burn fat as fuel; what all endurance athletes are seeking! When caffeine is ingested, fatty acids are released into the bloodstream, which helps to spare muscle glycogen for later use and extends the benefit of all the carbohydrate loading you did the days before your race. Also, speaking of carbohydrates, caffeine has been shown to increase the rate of glucose absorption; in other words, a little caffeine will help you to utilize your gel a little quicker.
So we should all be popping NoDoz, right? Well, not so fast. There are several caveats to caffeine use, the first being that it doesn’t affect every person in the same way. For some, the use of caffeine comes with disrupted sleep, anxiety, stomach upset and jittery nerves. Additionally, the effectiveness of caffeine is reduced for those who are already habitual users, and the smallest effective dose is recommended because there are diminishing returns when you start to ingest large quantities.
In practice, utilizing caffeine to enhance your performance takes some planning. First, try caffeine during training to ensure you don’t have any negative side effects. There are several products on the market (gels, beans, etc) and you will want to make sure they go down smoothly come race day. Additionally, if you are a regular caffeine user, you will want to wean yourself down in order to get the biggest boost on race day. During the weeks of your taper, take a tally of all foods and beverages you consume that contain caffeine (this will take some time and investigation), slowly remove these items from your diet over a period of weeks and you will greatly reduce the possibility of withdrawal headaches.
It may take some time and effort, but hopefully the results will be worth it! I’ll be trying out caffeine for my upcoming marathon and will report back to you with the results!