Caffeine: How Does It Help An Endurance Athlete?

By September 16, 2020December 9th, 2020One Comment
Jyoti explains how caffeine helps an endurance athlete

Most runners have the tendency to ‘procaffeinate’ before stepping out for a run. Many a times, we all feel the need for a cup of coffee to wake us up or to make us run faster. In fact, caffeine is the most popular ergogenic aid (performance enhancing supplement) taken by recreational runners or elite endurance runners.

Recent studies show that 70% of the Olympic endurance athletes use caffeine as a legal ergogenic aid to enhance their running performance. Boston marathon 2018 champion, Des Linden, swear by using coffee to increase her performance. She has her own coffee brand ‘Linden X Two’. Distance elite runner Mo Farah has a pre-run ritual where he drinks a cup of coffee 20 minutes before the run.

Alex Hutchinson is an elite long-distance runner, a trained physicist, an award-winning journalist, an author, and an insider to Nike’s top-secret training project to break the two-hour marathon barrier. He writes in his book ‘Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance’: It’s the brain that dictates your limits and that means they can always be pushed a little farther.

If there is anything that stimulates our brain to scale back our perception of effort and makes running faster, feel easier, then we are more than willing to take a chance.

To understand the science behind caffeine as a performance enhancer, you will need a dose for yourself right now. Go ahead, brew yourself a hot cup of coffee and come back to read about it.

Awakens The Nervous System

Caffeine can cross the blood-brain barrier and has an effect on the central nervous system. During our awakened time, our brain produces the neurochemical called adenosine which is responsible for our alertness throughout the day. The receptors target this neurochemical and reduces its impact and that’s when we start feeling sleepy at the end of the day. The molecular targets of caffeine are these adenosine receptors which inhibit their negative effects on the alertness. So basically, caffeine keeps us awake by blocking or competing with these receptors, thereby reducing their impact.

Increases Time To Exhaustion

Glycogen is the main fuel for muscles in any aerobic activity. One of the byproducts of caffeine metabolism encourages muscles to use fatty acids as fuel by mobilizing fat stores (lipolytic effect), which in-turn has the glycogen saving effect. This means it can be used later, which further indicates that the athlete can exercise longer before getting exhausted. This leads to more fat oxidation before reaching exhaustion. The fat oxidation also produces less lactate which leads to less fatigue. By virtue of increased time to exhaustion, the oxygen uptake increases which further leads to improved sports performance.

Enhances The Contractile Strength Of Muscle Fibres

The caffeine components have the effect on mobilizing intercellular calcium which is needed for muscle contraction. When the calcium ion release decreases, fatigue in the body sets in. Caffeine not only increases calcium ion release, but also increases sensitivity of the muscle fibres to these calcium ions, thereby increasing the muscular strength.

Enhances Endurance Performance

Caffeine regulates the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine which is a reward happy neurotransmitter. It reduces the feeling of fatigue, the rate of perceived effort and perception of levels of intensity which leads to performance improvement. It also regulates the release of epinephrine (adrenaline), a hormone responsible for the “fight or flight” response, which can increase sports performance.

Are you still awake and with me? If not, go grab another cup of coffee and then we can continue further. You will still be in your daily recommended consumption dosage (2 mg/kg body weight or 250-400mg or 2-4 cups of coffee daily). Go ahead, get one and come back to know more about the research on caffeine.

We as runners are extremely motivated when personal records are set. We spend a lot of time figuring out what can we do to get faster – improve our form, better shoes, tweak the training program, improve diet and much more. Most of us do not know that even a small cup of coffee before a long run can not only improve our performance but also enhance our muscle recovery after the workout. Researchers have found that caffeine significantly affects the performance when the majority of the energy is produced using aerobic pathways (For example: long endurance runs) but there are a few studies which suggests that some benefits to anaerobic components in short high intensity workouts also.

There is a lot of research to prove that but the variations in the studies can be attributed to the following factors:

● Form of consumption of caffeine (cola drinks with carbohydrates vs potent caffeine pills), dosage
● Training level of the athletes, time of ingestion (no more than 60 minutes before exercise vs during exercise)
● Habituation vs non-habituation
● Lifestyle (smoking habits)
● Diet (diet high in a few vegetables increases caffeine metabolism and shorten the life by 20%), age of the subjects (can affect the caffeine metabolism)
● Study group (placebo vs-controlled groups)

Take Home Message

● The most effective time to consume caffeine for maximum benefits is 60 minutes prior to activity as it takes approximately this much time to metabolize.
● Moderate quantities (3–6mg per kg body weight) has been shown to be the most efficient dose in athletes. When consumed in higher dosages (≥ 9mg/kg of body weight), it leads to nausea, gastrointestinal distress, and/or anxiety.
● Consuming caffeine either in pure form as pill or in a carbohydrate energy beverage seems most efficient. Research showed that caffeine-carbohydrate combination resulted in a significant increase in muscle glycogen for as long as four hours after intense exercise.
● Habitual caffeine users may need to stop consuming caffeine at least seven days prior to competition to have optimal effects. This allows sufficient time for deregulation of adenosine receptors to occur, thus possibly maximizing the ergogenic effects of caffeine.
● While caffeine is a diuretic, exercise reduces its negative impact on hydration. In a recent scientific review, moderate caffeine consumption does not result in water-electrolyte imbalances, hyperthermia, or reduced exercise-heat tolerance.
● Caffeine amounts differ in various products. The caffeine tablets are the most potent source of caffeine compared to brewed coffee, tea, cola drinks and other sources. Many energy gels, caffeine pills, caffeinated chocolates, energy drinks are available in the market. Few recommendations are – Nescafe, Prolab caffeine pills, Muscletech Platinum Caffeine, Red Bull, Fast and Up Reload + Caffeine.

If you have ever “hit the wall” during the long runs, you will understand the importance of nutrition before those long runs. So next time, you plan to run a 20 miler, give pre-run caffeine pill a try. It is worth the shot. Even if you feel any negative symptoms, start cutting down on the caffeine and all withdrawal symptoms will be gone within 15-20 days. The positive effects on performance are small, but they are there and well researched. It may be a hit or a miss for you. But speaking from my personal experience, intake of caffeine sets the tone of my workout and provides me the much-needed boost for an early morning run.

Are you feeling jittery? If so, it’s time to go for a run and expend that energy.

Jyoti Khera


The writer is a fitness coach from Hyd who has been running for over 15 years now. She is Sports Injury rehab specialist and a Sports nutrition advisor. Instagram @iamjyotikhera

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