With a whole lot of stories in the news this week about sports people using caffeine I thought I would add my two bob’s worth. My understanding is based on my memory of research done long ago but I am not aware of any newer research which might change things.
Caffeine can help.
For any running event longer than an hour or so, a strong cup of black coffee about an hour before the race can result in a better performance. The reason for this is that coffee causes fats to be released into the bloodstream which are used by the body as fuel earlier in the performance, causing the postponement of the release of muscle glycogen until later in the performance. Thus fatigue is delayed and the body is able to perform longer at a high level.
Caffeine can hinder.
For running events shorter than an hour in duration, caffeine use hinders performance. The reason for this is that the coffee causes fats to be released into the bloodstream which are used by the body as fuel earlier in the performance, causing the postponement of the release of muscle glycogen which for events of shorter duration should be made available from the start of the exercise. Energy release from fats is less efficient that energy release from glycogen, and it is glycogen runners need instantly in events of shorter duration.
Other factors come into play.
A regular tea/coffee drinker will only get a partial benefit: coffee boosts endurance performance if your body is not already adapted/addicted to it. Or people can feel sick, or need a pit stop during the run.
There is no problem putting caffeine back on the banned list as it is effective in small quantities and it is practical to ban only the ingestion of large amounts. We would still drink coffee for its benefits and people would be less likely to (pointlessly) ingest large amounts which could be dangerous to their health.
Having said all this, I should point out that I have a problem with the mindset of people who look for artificial chemical means, legal or not, to enhance performance, when hard training and a balanced diet give proportionately far greater improvement and permanent fitness benefits to boot!
So in summary – as a general lifestyle rule, cut right back on caffeine use. Don’t use it before races up to 10k in length. For half marathons and above drink one strong black coffee an hour before the start.
Or – just enjoy your occasional tea or coffee, enjoy your long races, and forget about caffeine altogether.
There is no substitute for hard work in training!
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