Coffee fans, rejoice! The short answer is yes, as long as your body tolerates it. Caffeine is one of the few substances with good research showing its effectiveness in improving endurance performance, mostly through its effects on the central nervous system and decrease in perceived fatigue.
And a little can go a long way—as little as 3 mg/kg (about 200 mg in a 150-pound runner), equivalent to about 8 to 16 oz. of coffee depending on brewing strength, taken 60 to 90 minutes before training or race-time—has been shown to significantly improve performance. And you don’t have to go cold turkey before your big event. Research has demonstrated that even habitual caffeine users (i.e. you drink coffee daily) can get the benefit.
Consuming small amounts of caffeine during longer races (1 mg/kg every two hours) has also been shown to be beneficial for some competitors. Many sports performance products (i.e. drinks, gels, etc.) have small amounts of caffeine added for this purpose—just read the label to see how much they provide.
However, caffeine isn’t for everyone. A 3% improvement in performance isn’t worth if you need to spend five minutes in the bathroom! Consider reducing or avoiding caffeine if it:
· Impacts your ability to sleep at night
· Upsets your stomach or creates gastrointestinal symptoms while training/competing
· Creates anxiety, jitters, or nervousness that negatively impacts performance
· Seems to cause abnormal heart palpitations (“racing heart”)
My biggest piece of advice: test it out before race day. Use a key training run to make sure your body tolerates your target dose of caffeine at race pace.
Spriet, L. L. (2014). Exercise and sport performance with low doses of caffeine. Sports medicine, 44(2), 175-184. Accessed 1/26/15 at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-014-0257-8/fulltext.html
Hodgson, A. B., Randell, R. K., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2013). The metabolic and performance effects of caffeine compared to coffee during endurance exercise. PloS one, 8(4), e59561. Accessed 1/26/15 at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0059561/
Jason Machowsky is a board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist at the Tisch Sports Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. He currently serves our nation’s athletes as an active member of the United States Olympic Committee Sports Dietitian Registry. Machowsky received his Masters of Science degree in applied physiology and nutrition from Teachers College at Columbia University.