Does Caffeine Improve Performance?

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!

During my taper I’ll need to say goodbye to the delicious coffee my husband makes every morning.

New Year – A Fresh Beginning!

After taking a month and a half off of blogging, I’m back. As a warning, this is will be more personal than nutrition related so feel free to stop reading if you’re not interested! One of the reasons behind my hiatus has to do with my personal resolution last year (which was to find new ways of challenging myself) so I thought I’d reflect a little on the year that was and talk about my resolution for the year to come.

Resolving to push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself was a great resolution and definitely had its intended effect. In the past year I was able to grow professionally and explore a few new opportunities. The mixed result of this is that my schedule is busier than ever going into the new year! Tackling new challenges like teaching has me both excited and nervous. I also am looking forward to seeing many more counseling clients. I’ve been helping out with several professional groups too which has allowed me to meet more great RDs in my area. Professional challenges – check! I definitely succeeded there!

My personal goals were all about physically challenging myself in 2012. The year started off with a bang when I signed up for the Hyannis Half Marathon, my first ever half. I had never actually considered myself to be much of a runner; I ran because it was a quicker way to fit in my exercise. A friend urged me to try this one and let’s just say I was hooked! I ended up running all three half marathons in the Cape Cod Trilogy last year. I also ran a 5 miler in July and ran with two of my three boys in their first 1 mile fun run the same day. I did a Team 5K trail run with 20 “challenges” (obstacles) with three friends in October which was a lot of fun! Then, since the 5K trail run was so fun, I ran a 15K trail run the following weekend. On top of all of my running firsts I have been working out in a Dojo that among other things, trains MMA fighters; There I’ve been working on my strength training and I’m happy to report I’ve made a leap in my strength in the past year. Round all of that out with Pilates twice a week and I would call last year a success! Oh and before I forget, I made the leap and signed up for my first full marathon which is coming up in February – the Hyannis Marathon (also the site of my first half) I can’t wait!

So what could I possibly do to make 2013 just as successful? My overarching goal for the new year is to be kind to myself and realize that I really don’t need to do it all. Several times over the past year I have felt overwhelmed and more than a little stressed out with all of the things I had scheduled. Let’s just say that training for a marathon while preparing to teach a college class and deal with the ins and outs of family life at the same time is a little stressful. I’ve already started to work on my new resolution by deciding which professional groups I will continue to work with and which I will pass on next year. I’ve also realized that adding in a rest day here and there (or even just shortening a run once in a while) isn’t the end of the world for my training. Rest is just as important as the training itself.

This year I resolve to give myself a break when I need it and realize I don’t have to do everything. The question comes up over and over again “Is it possible for women (or anyone for that matter) to have it all?” I recently heard Michele Flournoy (formerly the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon) in an interview. When asked if a woman can have it all she said “I’m one who believes that you can have it all — you just can’t always have it at exactly the same time with equal intensity.” Very wise words indeed! What are your resolutions for the coming year?