Caffeine: The Best Legal Performance Enhancer?

“Caffeine is a perfectly legal performance enhancer. If you are serious about improving your race time, you are crazy not to use it.”

That’s pretty close to a direct quote from a conversation I had with my nutritionist. I originally started working with him to help with weight loss, but in the process, I’ve also learned an enormous amount about how to fuel while running. With marathon day approaching, my long runs are taking on more of a dress rehearsal aspect, hence our conversation about caffeine.

It took me awhile even to understand what my nutritionist was talking about when he first brought caffeine up. He asked about caffeine, and I said I drink coffee every morning. Then he asked what I had during the run. I said “Some Gu has caffeine in it…” Thinking to myself, um, this guy is an expert in this stuff. He surely knows this?

When it became clear he meant something else, I wondered if I was supposed to carry a little vial with espresso in it? Um, no. He meant a caffeine supplement like No Doz pills, or a 5-hour Energy shot, which I’d never heard of. He said the Energy Shot was better because it was easier to take while running. To further highlight my naiveté, I asked if I could buy it at the local bike shop. He recommended the local gas station.

Legal performance enhancement? Tell me more.

When I got home, I immediately texted my various running mentors, including my coach and my fellow Saltines. Was everyone carrying little brown glass bottles of energy drink, and I had never noticed? No, but it turned out lots of people had given caffeine some thought.

My coach uses caffeinated energy gels. The Saltines were all over the map. Cinnamon, Mango and Barley use caffeinated gels during a race, and Barley also does a caffeine deprivation routine to increase its effectiveness. Chicory and Anise have both tried caffeine supplementation. For both of them the result was severe stomach problems. My High Power Running Mentor #1 completely agreed with the nutritionist, using close to the same words about it being crazy not to use a perfectly legal performance enhancer. He uses caffeine patches.

Having consulted friends and mentors, I naturally also turned to the Internet. Our very own Tea says caffeine can be great for runners. A quick perusal of articles on Google turned up nearly uniformly positive results for caffeine use while running. I learned that some of the benefits of caffeine include reducing perception of effort, increasing the concentration of endorphins produced by the brain, enhancing the body’s ability to burn fat, improving neuromuscular coordination and increasing heat tolerance. Wow!

Most studies recommend about 3-6mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. Caffeine is long-lasting so the timing of intake isn’t critical. It comes in many forms including your standard cup of coffee, gels, blocks, beans, but also shots, patches and pills. Most importantly, keep your eye on your total overall dose. Taking too much might lead to jitteriness and stomach problems. Studies were mixed on the question of whether abstaining from caffeine in the days before the race heighten the effect or not.

OK, I’ll try it

The security alert and locked glass case at the gas station add to the whole feeling of illicit drug use when buying energy shots. But caffeine is perfectly legal!

The reviews were positive enough that I wanted to try it. The nutritionist conversation took place immediately before I left town for a women’s retreat with my church, so I had to stop at a gas station anyway. They did, indeed, have the Five Hour Energy Shots. I had the first one Saturday at the retreat in order to test it out before the big run.

Sneaking into the bathroom to take an upper during a church lady event – I guess this is what passes for sketchy substance use when you are 49 and the mother of two kids. I felt completely fine and had no trouble staying awake, but the retreat was really lovely and I would have been fine regardless.

The next day was my big 20-mile run, with the last 12 miles at marathon pace. It was as close to a dress rehearsal as I am getting, so I took all the Gu I planned to use plus the Five Hour Energy Shot, which I had about an hour into the run. It ended up going really well, and I was even a bit faster than I expected on the 12 marathon pace miles. But a lot of stars had aligned properly that day – I was energized by the women’s retreat, I had a great running buddy with me at the start, the sun finally came out… did the caffeine help or not?

My new caffeine plan!

The following Sunday I had a 15-mile progression run under less good conditions. I was mentally a bit fried from the semester starting up again, I was alone, the weather was overcast and clammy. I felt sort of sluggish for the first five miles or so.

I was treating this run as a smaller dress rehearsal, so 60 minutes into the run, I had the Five Hour Energy Shot again. And then, the sun came out, the flowers bloomed and the birds burst into song! Not exactly, but that’s how it seemed. It took about 8 minutes post-Energy Shot for me to start feeling quite a bit better. In fact, just how I feel when a cup of coffee hits me in exactly the right way. Perkier for sure, but also just plain happier. Suddenly, I loved all the music on my shuffle, the same old streets were more exciting, and I could tell spring is around the corner, despite the dampness of the day.

The only negative effect I might link to my experiment with the energy shot is I had some insomnia both nights after these long runs. Insomnia isn’t unprecedented for me after a big effort so I wasn’t surprised after the 20 miler. However, I was up for awhile after the 15 miler also, but not at all after taking the energy shot at the retreat, so I can’t say if there is direct causation. The studies I read wouldn’t advise using caffeine supplementation for just a regular workout, and I don’t plan to. But will I be using this “perfectly legal performance enhancer” on race day? You bet!

Have you experimented with caffeine on race day? What did you try and how did it go?

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  1. I wouldn’t dream of racing without caffeine ! Strong coffee pre-race and caffeinated gels during. I also do the caffeine deprivation before key races so that it has more effect. I know some folks have stomach issues because if it, but luckily I have an iron gut.

  2. I struggle with adding caffeine. I usually get such a headache after my coffee, that I would worry. It’s possible I could experiment with the energy shots.

  3. I definitely don’t up my caffeine on all workouts, but also good to work caffeine into those key long runs and workouts before the race (like you did) to make sure you know how your body reacts.

    While I do the depletion prior to the race, I’m well aware it could totally be mental that my race day coffee and gels feel more powerful. But it works, so I’ll go with it even if it’s a placebo effect.

    I can’t stand the taste of energy drinks, 5 hour energy etc so I think I would have a hard time trying those for running. I’d never get the taste out of my mouth!

    1. I would be soooo unpleasant to be around if I tried the depletion routine. My family would hate me! I didn’t find the 5 hour energy drink so bad and it’s really small (just about a shot, of course!) so I got it down quick.

    2. If you wanted to try a “shot” style caffeine supplement, I’ve had great luck with Eboost! You can buy them at Vitamin Shoppe. They come in little shots or tablets for water. The shots honestly don’t taste all that good, but they’re clean and (placebo or not) have always felt effective to me!

  4. Always coffee on race day. Actually, coffee almost every day. I probably don’t do more coffee than usual on race day, except that some of my gels have caffeine in them. I usually have enough coffee before I leave the house to get “my business” taken care of, then a to-go cup that I rotate with water on the drive to the race.

    1. Ooo, I do this too! Little sips of coffee and water in the car on the way to the race! I used to have a NYC marathon travel mug that I always used, but it broke, wah! Guess I need a new one….