Clarifying the Caffeine Controversy
Weighing the pros and cons of your pre-run cup of Joe
Caffeine is the most widely used performance-enhancing drug in sports. An analysis of more than 20,000 competitive-athlete urine samples revealed three out of four ingested caffeine either before or during competition, with endurance athletes using it the most. Prior to 2004, caffeine was listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency as a banned substance, considered to provide “unfair advantage” to athletes, based on clinical studies. In 2004, the decision was reversed due to the prevalence of caffeine in many common foods and drinks (chocolate, coffee, tea, etc.), which increased the likelihood that non-doping athletes could “test positive.”
In moderate doses (200 to 300 milligrams), caffeine has been demonstrated in numerous scientific studies to improve athletic performance and endurance in several ways. It encourages active muscles to use fat as fuel, delaying depletion of glycogen by more than 50 percent and resulting in the ability to utilize the stores later in a trail race. It also stimulates the central nervous system, which can sharpen concentration, and improve rapid reactions, including foot placement. By altering electrolytes such as calcium, sodium, and potassium in cells, caffeine has also been demonstrated to strengthen muscle contractions.
Dosage and Timing
Since each runner responds differently to caffeine, recommended dose limits vary from athlete to athlete. In general, the Mayo Clinic recommends maxing at 200 to 300 milligrams (two to three cups of coffee) per day to avoid negative side effects such as sleep deprivation, nausea, cramping, anxiety, fatigue, headaches and gastrointestinal issues. Runners racing with excessive caffeine in their systems may experience additional side effects such as muscle tightness, cramping and dehydration.
The ideal time to consume caffeine is two to three hours before competition, as it takes several hours for caffeine to enter the body and utilize fat stores for energy. Because daily use of caffeine can contribute to a tolerance, one way to ensure you reap the benefits on race day is to taper off caffeine for the week prior to your race. International Marathon Medical Directors Association (IMMDA) recommends a limit of 200 milligrams caffeine before and during races, though every runner should experiment during training runs to determine the smallest effective amount.