Caffeine and Endurance Running

It’s a naptastic rainy day here at iRunFar and, therefore, the perfect time to talk about caffeine… just after our […]

By on April 28, 2008 | Comments

It’s a naptastic rainy day here at iRunFar and, therefore, the perfect time to talk about caffeine… just after our coffee mugs get refilled. Ahhh… better. Whether you realize it or not, if you run ultras you are likely taking caffeine. That being the case, it’s wise to consider possible benefits and drawbacks to consuming caffeine during an ultramarathon.

Caffeine: The Diuretic
The most common worry about taking caffeine is that it is a diuretic and will quickly lead to dehydration. Surely something that will have a significant negative impact on one’s hydration during an ultramarathon should at least be thoughtfully considered and possibly avoided entirely. The good news for all us caffeine junkies is that there is little to no evidence that caffeine leads to reduced water retention in trained athletes or during sustained exercise. I was first clued into this fact by Adam Chase while finishing up the Leadville 100 in 2006. Since then I’ve seen multiple articles suggesting that caffeine has a much lesser than expected diuretic effect. For instance, the New York Times recently ran the short piece, The Claim: Caffeine Causes Dehydration, discussing how recent research (and reanalysis) shows caffeine not to be as powerful a diuretic as commonly thought.

Caffeine: The Performance Enhancing Drug
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, which until recently was banned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. Some research shows that caffeine assists in fat burning thereby preserving glycogen stores. The ability to burn fat is paramount when running ultras and any enhancement of this process should tightly correlate to increased performance so long as the effect does not have perverse compilations later in an ultra (i.e., a later reduction in fat burning capacity).

Caffeine: The Happy Place
In addition to any physiological benefits caffeine may have, it surely has psychological benefits for those who believe in it.

While caffeine may not be useful in enhancing the ability of a sleep-deprived person to perform complex tasks, it does enhance perceived wakefullness and alertness. Fortunately for ultrarunners, when it comes down to it ultrarunning is about as simple as it gets. Many who has been on the trail as midnight slides into the rearview mirror will understand that simply feeling a bit more awake provides a huge performance benefit over being asleep on your feet. (Trail Mule, if you still read this blog, you want to share the tale of our Massanutten incident or shall I?)

Even when your not sleep walking, caffeine can give you a powerful mental boost… if only you will believe in it’s power. Oh, the power of the placebo! In the past year, I’ve developed a “magic bullet” that I can resort to when I’ve completely lost it on the trail. All I do is take two ibuprofen, two caffeine pills, and maybe a gel. So far that combo has always resulted in me kicking it up two gears within the next half hour. I have no idea if this combination has any actual beneficial physiological influence, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work for me!

Sources of Caffeine on the Run
How do you get caffeine while on the run? (No, really, do tell.) Here’s a a short list of caffeine sourcing options.

  • Sports gels – most contain caffeine, some gels contain more caffeine than others
  • Energy chews such as shot bloks
  • Soda
  • Coffee and tea based beverages
  • Energy drinks
  • Chocolate!
  • OTC drug forms

Other Sources of Information on Caffeine
In closing, check out this excellent examination of caffeine and endurance performance by First Endurance. (I hope to share more information about First Endurance with you shortly.) Please let us know if you know of any good sources of information regarding caffeine and athletic performance.

Community Topics
Do you take caffeine during an ultra? In what form? Caffeine related running tips? Have you ever weened yourself from caffeine leading up to a race in order to have it give a bigger kick on race day? Got any good caffeine related stories?

[Ps. This post set a new iRunFar record for longest time between becoming a draft post and being published at 6 months and 6 days. Looks like we need some more caffeine, huh!?]

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.