Caffeine Supplements and Running Performance

Ergogenic aids such as caffeine supplements have become one of the popular ways for athletes to boost their running performance.  A common part of our regular diet ofent includes caffeine in our daily beverages such as coffee, tea, and soft drinks. As a runner you might be curious about whether or not caffeine, or more specifically, caffeine supplements, can help your running performance in racing events.

The Brighter Side of Caffeine

There have been more than two hundred studies done on caffeine and athletic performance with the majority finding that it does have a positive effect on performance.  In the lab it’s been shown to improve time trial performance and it’s been shown that for strenuous aerobic exercise it extends performance to exhaustion.

Even in shorter, more intense events (lasting less than an hour) as well as longer events such as marathons and ultra-marathons, caffeine has shown improvements in performance.  Most studies support this claim.

How significant is the improvement?  It’s been shown that caffeine will shave about one second per minute off your racing time, over any racing distance. 

So that’s the good news.  If caffeine supplements have been found to help runners improve their race times, are there any negative side effects to caffeine?

Caffeine’s Darker Side

Most of us know about the side effects of drinking too much caffeine:  feeling jittery and restless, talking too much and too fast, getting shaky hands or nervous twitches, to name just a few of the less positive symptoms.  If we ingest caffeine in smaller amounts we might experience a feeling of well-being instead – which is what most of us are aiming toward in our beverages.

Caffeine is classified as a stimulant so these symptoms are expected.  But caffeine supplements may have more caffeine in them than your daily coffee fix, and there could be more negative side effects beyond the ones mentioned above.  These include:
-    upset stomach and nausea
-    abnormal heart rhythms or heart palpitations
-    stomach cramps
-    increased urination
-    insomnia
-    elevated blood pressure
-    elevated heart rate
-    potentially increased cholesterol and LDL levels

Women are at an additional risk because caffeine interferes with the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.  In the long term this increases their propensity for osteoporosis and bone fractures.

There has been a lot of disagreement about whether or not caffeine in your beverages has a diuretic effect, meaning that you become dehydrated. The most recent studies reveal that the diuretic effect caused by the caffeine in these drinks is balanced by the fluid in the drink.  So, according to recent studies, drinking caffeinated beverages does not seem to be a problem.  (I still recommend that athletes drink water to stay hydrated.)

Only You Can Decide

Based on these facts what should the runner do about whether or not to take caffeine supplements?  Basically, you’ll need to decide whether the improvement in performance (one second per minute) is worth the negative side effects.  If you’re an elite runner this might help make the difference you need.  For less competitive runners it may not be worth it.  Only you can decide based on your health and your own reaction to the effects of caffeine.

If you decide you want to try caffeine supplements, here is some advice:

1.    Everyone reacts differently to caffeine.  Some people are more sensitive to caffeine, others have higher tolerance levels.  You will need to do some experimentation and pay attention to how your body reacts to supplementation.  While you are in training experiment with different levels of caffeine supplements to find out what works for you, or doesn’t work.  Never wait until race day to try them for the first time.

2.    Dosage should stay in the range of three to six milligrams per kilogram of body weight.  Also, you will want to take the supplements around thirty minutes to an hour or so before your exercise in order to get the desired effect.  Dosages above 500 mg per day are discouraged because it’s bad for your health and also may actually produce negative performance results.

3.    If you are a long distance runner and your event is longer than sixty minutes, you might get some benefit out of taking smaller doses throughout your run, at regular intervals.  Be sure to try this out during your training runs to see if you notice any benefit.  Once again, don’t try it for the first time on the day of the race.

4.    If you are a regular coffee drinker, tea drinker, or caffeinated beverage drinker of any kind, caffeine supplements will not be as effective because your body is already used to the effects of caffeine.  You will find a better benefit if caffeine is NOT part of your daily routine.

5.    In order to maximize the benefits of caffeine during your race, you will want to abstain from any caffeinated drinks or foods for four to fourteen days before the race.  Studies show that the best effect of caffeine supplements will result after you’ve had an abstinence, or withdrawal period.

6.    If you want caffeine to work during your race you will want to use it only before your races.  Using it before your regular workouts will reduce the effect during your race, causing you to need a higher dosage.

7.    Caffeine taken in capsule form has a better effect on performance than caffeine taken in beverage form (coffee, tea, soft drinks, etc.).

8.    Athletes who take creatine should not take caffeine.  Caffeine cancels out the effects of creatine so you cannot take both at the same time.

The above information should help you to make a better decision about whether or not to take caffeine to improve your running performance. 

To summarize the most important points:

  • weigh the positive benefits with the negative benefits to decide if caffeine supplements are right for you
  • remember that everyone handles caffeine differently.  Just because it works for your running mates doesn’t mean it will work well for you.
  • Never use caffeine before or during a race without testing out your reaction in advance
  • Keep your dosages within the recommended guidelines

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