Caffeine for Marathoners: The Legal (and tasty) Dope!

Mmm Coffee!

Having spent many years training with guys who like to run many marathons each year as well as ultra marathons, I have had many anecdotal tips about caffeine use thrown my way. It might interest you to know that several top-level masters marathoners in Ohio swear by taking caffeinated pills in the later miles of a marathon. Others swear by lowering caffeine intake the weeks before a marathon in order to increase the boost on race day!ย Others swear off their usual morning coffee with worries of stomach distress. Previously too much caffeine could even disqualify you from elite competition!

I’ve dabbled with caffeine intake for my marathons and ultra marathons, and I must say I think it is great. Just ask my training partners, they love when I am highly caffeinated.

Here’s my personal marathon caffeine routine that you may want to try in your next race, note that everyone is individual and if you have medical issues exacerbated by caffeine, or have a crazy heart like Salty, these tips might not be great for you. If in doubt, check with your doctor. ย Personally, I have no doubts about my love and tolerance of caffeine during my marathons. Here’s what works for me.

[pullquote]Caffeine enhances fat-burning and carb absorption from gels. Even better, it delays your feeling of fatigue! Barista, make that a double![/pullquote]

Pre Race Week: Keeping it Normal

I’m a relatively avid coffee drinker. Many coffee lovers give up coffee for a few days (or weeks!) before their big races. I have not ever successfully gone long-term without my caffeine fix! That is why for the most part I don’t try the week prior cut back on caffeine intake. I don’t want to feel even more sluggish during taper than normal. However, if like me, you consume caffeine regularly before runs, the boost will not be as powerful as it would be if you abstained and lowered your tolerance. If you are an occasional caffeine consumer, congratulations! You get a slightly bigger boost on race day without enduring headaches and obscene crankiness for a few days before your big race! For me those withdrawal effects aren’t worth any extra boost.

Race Morning: Wake up and Get Going

Race morning I always wake up 3 hours before the event and the first thing I do is have coffee (with my pre race hydration and breakfast) to wake up my system and get things moving! I have this pretty much down to an art now and have not had to make any pit-stops during my marathons since starting this habit. If coffee is too harsh try a morning tea, which is gentler on more sensitive stomachs.

Yay! Double Caffeine Time!

Pre Race: Enhanced Fuel Burning

Twenty minutes before the race I have a bit of water and a caffeinated gel. I don’t do this for the alertness boost, but rather because caffeine has been shown to help your body burn fat. As you recall from our first Fight the Bonk post, burning fat is where it’s at to make it to the marathon finish line! Also, check this out: by consuming caffeine before the race I am making it easier for my body to digest and utilize the carbohydrates in the gels I take during the race. Win-win!

Race Time: Postpone Feelings of Fatigue

After that I have one more normal caffeinated gel at mile 6 and then I switch to double caffeine gels (Gu’s Roctane are my preferred brand). I doubt there is a real difference, but let me tell you the mind is a powerful thing and I very much look forward to that caffeinated boost while counting down the miles to my next gel! Studies show I’m not alone. Caffeinated athletes take longer to exercise to exhaustion than noncaffeinated athletes.

Post Race: Recover Quick

Post race caffeine may also keep you dancing with the elites at your after party!

Post race I have often treated myself to a chai tea or a cold latte. Have caffeine with some post race carbs and it actually aids in your post race recovery!


I may be biased, but this is my method and I have successfully used it in the majority of my marathons. Hopefully some of these caffeine “tricks” can prove useful to you in your next marathon endeavor! What are your feelings on using caffeine for enhanced race performance?


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A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. Very interesting post! I’m glad to read it to–it fits in well with the strategy I have been taking this fall. I have been doing every other long run glycogen depleted and on those days, I drink a cup of coffee before heading out. It has worked really well for me and I think that for the first time ever, I’ll be having a cup of coffee before my fall marathon.

    1. I don’t think I have ever intentionally tried glycogen depletion but I have had plenty of long runs with forgotten gu’s at home and sustained on just that morning coffee on the drive in ๐Ÿ™‚ I was unaware of the many benefits caffeine had until a workshop last summer and knowing about the fat burning effect I try to pop a caffeinated Gu before most endurance events now, more for the caffeine effect than the glycogen effect ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I am a moderate to heavy coffee drinker and don’t really adjust before the marathon, though race day is pretty much the one time I have coffee before I run, mostly to head off any risk of headaches. I’m a big believer in glycogen depletion training but have never thought to try enhancing it with coffee, and I’m not sure I will out of worry that it will upset my stomach (I usually allow plenty of time between coffee consumption and my race).
    You dance around one key point here a little bit – there may be a difference between “coffee” and “caffeine”. Most studies on the topic look strictly at the effect of caffeine, usually taken in a pill form. Coffee has other chemicals that may modify the effect, so one should be careful in extending the results of caffeine studies to coffee consumption. But since you’re talking mostly about personal experience, your in the clear ;o).

    1. She also only has the coffee well before the race and not immediately before or during the race. Not recommending drinking a vente latte at the starting line or during the race ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. Most of my race caffeine actually is taken in the form of gels. I haven’t found the need to take a pill since I like the gel’s anyway, but yes I would say avoid coffee mid race and opt for a pill or gel, or maybe even defizzed cola if you have great spectators supporting you on course ๐Ÿ™‚ I take my coffee with my race breakfast first thing in the AM so that my stomach will settle by race time.

      All caffeine from then on is from Gu’s until post race!

  3. Nice post, Pepper! I can’t have more than a cup of coffee before the race or I get dry heaves. I wish I could have more because I LOVE coffee! I’ve thought of trying the caffeinated gels or pills in the past and will probably try each separately in the future!

    On a personal level, I’ve been thinking of you lately as Columbus is approaching and we’ve been together the past 2 years. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. awwe now I am sad! I am so bummed I wasn’t able to get healthy to train to race Columbus this year!

      I’m the same, I just have one large coffee first thing when I wake up, it’s enough to perk me up and get me race ready, then it is on to caffeinated gels!

    1. Diane, pre race and mile 6 I usually go for a regular “plain” or “vanilla” Gu which has one dose of caffeine. Then I use Roctane Gu’s pomegranate flavor at miles 12, and 18, and maybe 22ish, which has a double caffeine dose.

  4. What do you think about the dehydrating effects (diuretic) of caffeine? Does it seem to affect you? I’m borderline neurotic about hydration, which is why I’ve never tried a caffeine regimen for racing.

    1. I edited out one of Salty’s edits that said caffeine wouldn’t cause dehydration. It’s possible science supports it, but in my experience in everyday life I would say caffeine does act as a diuretic to me.

      Because of my other race weekend hydration habits I do not worry about this effect on race day. I am chugging water or water+ nuun most of race weekend and I have a large glass of water + nuun or a gatorade with my coffee in the morning.

      Then to avoid having to pee the entire race I don’t drink anything again until my 20 minute before race gel+ swig of water combo. Then I drink at least a sip of water at most aid stations.

      I am almost always over hydrated, or perfectly hydrated, and I have never had dehydration effect me when using this method.

      (Note though this weekend at DWD I had pre race coffee and no water (doh! rookie mistake!) and I had severe quad cramping very early in my first leg. Likely not only due to caffeine and dehydration, but a good reminder to hydrate properly, even when under-trained and not technically racing!)

      1. Here’s what Matt Fitzgerald says in the article I linked:

        “Caffeine and hydration

        We’ve all heard the warning: Coffee has a diuretic effect, is dehydrating, and doesn’t count as a fluid replacer. While once deemed true, we now know differently.

        The truth is, a moderate intake of coffee, cola and other caffeinated beverages does count towards fluid needs — particularly if you’re accustomed to consuming caffeine on a daily basis. (Don’t we all know someone who drinks only coffee — no water — and is fully functional?)

        Given that about 80 percent of Americans drink coffee (55 percent daily, 25 percent occasionally), and the average intake is about 200 mg caffeine/day (3 mg/kg), most athletes are familiar with caffeine’s benefits of heightened alertness and performance.

        The U.S. military is intensely interested in the physiological effects of caffeine on hydration. With soldiers enduring the heat of Iraq, the military needs to know how to optimize hydration. Hence, they have researched the effects of moderate and high doses of caffeine (3 and 6 mg/kg body weight) on hydration.

        Using subjects who habitually consumed a relatively low amount of caffeine — equivalent to one, six-ounce cup of brewed coffee (100 mg/day; about 1.3 mg caffeine/kg), they found no detrimental effects of caffeine on 24-hour urine volume. (Armstrong, In’t J Sports Nutr, June 2005) By day’s end, the urine losses were similar whether the person consumed no caffeine or a high dose.

        How did the “coffee is dehydrating” myth start? The initial studies looked at urine collection just two to four hours after caffeine consumption (not the 24-hour picture), didn’t compare coffee to water, or used very high doses of caffeine. We now know people have similar urine volume whether they consume caffeinated (<3 mg caffeine/kg) or plain water."

        1. Thanks for sharing, Salty. The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position stand from 2010 agrees with Matt from I agree with Pepper, though, about the anecdotal evidence to the contrary. I did find a study/RCT in cyclists that revealed increased urine output and increased electrolyte loss via sweat with vs without caffeine ingestion during 120 min of cycling at 63% VO2 max. Jury’s still out on this topic for me….

          1. I would also say look at the recent studies coming out about hydration too. Old thinking: optimal hydration requires replacing all fluid lost. New thinking: you need way less than that – the drink to thirst school. I am anxiously awaiting my copy of Waterlogged by Timothy Noakes which takes on this topic! I think as Pepper said, even if you lose more fluid with caffeine than without the effect would be negligible as long as you arrive to the starting line fully hydrated and drink according to thirst on the course. Pepper’s case (backed up by the science) for the benefits of caffeine is pretty persuasive to me!

  5. I think it is interesting how many people can’t have coffee before their runs. Without exception, I always swill a cup or 2 (or even 3!) of coffee before I hit the roads. As far as racing goes, the same is true. Although I don’t do any sort of cut-back either. I’ve never put much thought into caffeine in my gels – so it has me thinking – so thanks!

    That said – I’d like to offer a warning to anyone reading this that if it sounds great – please try caffeine and caffeinated gels a few times in training before the race environment as many people seem to have negative effects with it.

    1. That last piece of advice should be a post onto itself. We need a “make sure you try ___ in training (or a tune-up) before your goal race!” post!

  6. caffeine works for me! giving up coffee, unfortunately, is a bit of trouble-maker as i feel totally boring and flat. combine that with no martinis and gray fall days and i have to tell you, it just isn’t me.

    it had never crossed my mind that i would get that much of a boost. i have consistently seen an appreciable performance increase when i abstain the week before and ramp up caffeine during a longer event. i normally drink as much coffee as i can the rest of the time, whether before or during long runs or during the work week. my favorite example was during my third — last — 10-mile loop for the Buckeye Buster. i was second in pace because i started taking 50mg-caffeinated gels about halfway through.

    when i feel like doing short distances, a nice 50-50 mix of fresh coffee and hot chocolate works great since i’m not going to choke down gels during a 10K on trails. %^)

    i linked this blog in CRTR, above, in the Website field so hopefully, you can check out their responses, as well. . .

    1. I had to give up coffee for 5 days after the whole heart thing a few weeks ago and I was sooooo miserable! Doing that to myself the week before a big race just seems suicidal when I’m already on edge and ready to crack ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Thank you for this article!!! I am only a “halfer” (my 6th coming up in a couple weeks) and I knew nothing about caffeine during the run. Sunday I took a roctane at mile 4 of my 8 miler and had a negative split by 3 minutes!! (ok I had some headwind on the first four….) but it was AMAZING when it kicked in!!! My question is would you recommend another roctane or just regular GU after the next 45 minutes? (I’m hoping for a 2:20ish half. I’m not lightning like you all ๐Ÿ™‚ thanks again!!!!

    1. I say the more caffeine the better ๐Ÿ˜‰ If you can stomach a gel before the race I would have a normal one before and then a roctane at mile 4 and 8! Good Luck!

      1. Thanks so much Pepper!! Loving all the thoughts and advice on this blog! And I’ve sent this particular blog to many friends! ๐Ÿ™‚