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 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!?]

There are 14 comments

  1. Trail Goat

    Lisa,How could I forget chocolate covered espresso beans! What a perfect combo – a little sugar, a little fat, and lots of caffeine. Plus, CCEB (don't they seem like a fancy sports supplement when in acronym form) aren't sickly sweet … which is always a welcome break during an ultra.Thanks for sharing,BryonPs. I was just thinking about good times at Grand Targhee earlier this afternoon!

  2. angie's pink fu

    Oh yeah, I use caffeine. At the start of a morning run/race, to replace my morning coffee, as well as halfway through (or more often in a long run). Sometimes I use it if my fingers are swelling and I'm not moving fluid through my body properly (retaining too much water); I use it specifically for the diuretic properties. So far, it seems to work really really well :)

  3. Anonymous

    Funny your should ask. My biggest issue in running 100's is by far the ability to stay awake. I've only attempted 2 100's in my life. Both have been miserable failures for this very reason. My first 100 was Tahoe Rim. By the 76 mile aid station that I hit at about 1 P.M, I could not keep my eyes open. I took a 20 minute nappy – poo, drank some coffee and hit the trail. I desperately wanted to keep under 24 hr. pace so I continued on. 20 minutes back in to it I turned around and called it a night. I was nodding off even running downhill. It was like I was completely exhausted. Yet when I stopped, I was fine. I got a ride to my car and drove the hour home and had no problem staying awake.Example 2: Rio Del Largo last year. I was on 20 hr. pace until 68 miles, no sweat, not even on the pain train yet. As it got to be around midnight, I got extremely tired and by about 85 miles I stopped at another aid station and took about a 45 minute nappy poo. I struggled to get up and keep moving. I spent the rest of the race walking and stopping every few minutes. Hands on my knees with my eyes closed, trying to fight through the sleep.I bet I spent several hours stopped in the middle of the trail. This despite filling my water bottle with coffee. The nap and the coffee made absolutely no difference. I eventually "finished" in 26 hrs, greatly disappointed in myself. The interesting thing I noticed was that as the sun rose, so did my ability to run. It was as if all my energy returned. I guess if I was a little faster and finished sooner, this wouldn't be an issue. The moral of the story for me is that caffeine or sleep doesn't seem to help.I have something one of my friends gave to me that he got at 7/11. It's called a "STOK" Black Coffee Shot. 40 mg's ! I'm a little afraid to use it. My heart might explode.I now have the big decision to make at States. What aid station do I take a nap at? Green's Gate after I cross that cold-ass river or Brown's Bar? I will let you know that I have not had a pacer at any of these races, maybe that would help more then caffeine?I hope these examples of personal failure contribute to the topic, I've got many more that hopefully I can share with you in the future.Bring it Wasatch "East Coast" Speed Goat! – Grae.

  4. Will Thomas

    I used to be a caffiene junkie, but quit cold turkey over 10 years ago after a scary overdose and for personal reasons. I now love the fact that my body isn't dependant upon caffiene and I don't need that cup of morning coffee for my body to function properly.I have since then discovered this wonderful sport of endurance running and feel that caffience can be just the tool needed to bring a participant through a hard patch and to the finish line.I still stand by my personal decision not to use caffiene outside or in endurance events and I know it taxes me and can put me at a disadvantage to my competition. I just have to remember that I do this to compete against myself and not others and it also adds that one additional element of challenge that makes it that much more rewarding finishing an endurance event caffiene free.

  5. Meredith

    I am similar to Will that in the past 5+ months i gave up coffee and caffiene for the most part, i will have a small cup of green tea in the morning, but am fine with out it. At Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, i tried to go without caffiene, i felt GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!! until about 2am when i crashed and was falling asleep on the trail. I have never, ever, ever had something like that happen to me before and it was really scary to feel that out of control of my body. At the next aid station i had a 1/2 cup of black coffee and was good to go for the rest of the race. I think 2am was around 82 mile mark. The great thing about consuming almost no caffiene in months, is that when i did have that small amount of black coffee, it felt like rocket fuel. I had brought tea with me in my drop bags, but the reality was, it was way too much trouble to brew some tea at an aid station. I like to be in and out fast, no more than a minute, tops. So, maybe at my next 100, WS, i will have my crew prebrew tea for me, probably yerba mate, the energizing drink of South America! At Umstead a few weeks ago, i kept a fwe no doz in my pocket as insurance, so i did not fall asleep on the trail like at RR.

  6. Footfeathers

    Great post. I haven't run further than a 50 miler, so haven't had the need for caffeine other than the normal cup in the morning. This post is helpful for my training for Burning River. Love the espresso beans idea and will try that on my next real long run.Thanks for the great info!Tim

  7. Brennen

    I'm a big fan of Mountain Dew Amp at the 100s I've run. Debra "Fast Hands" Zichichi will have them waiting for me after dark at MMT.Also, I train hard with beer. After a long run on Saturday, I made sure to drink some strong ones that night. Up early to catch the train, 40 miles on your legs, the delicious haze from some Southampton Old Ale: There is no fatigue quite like that!

  8. ultrastevep

    Like Brennan, there is beer on my menu. I'll put them in my drop bags, hide them in the bushes…anywhere i can get that nectar out there. Of course it has to be Stout in the cold and IPA when it's hot ;-)But really now…my Nathan pack "always" has three baggies in it. One with Ibu's, one with salt tabs and the last one with some No-Doz! gotta love those little white "easy to go down" caplets at 10AM on night #2 at Hardrock!Esteban (NM name)

  9. Trail Goat

    Apparently, all you folks needed was a little caffeine to get you talking! ;-)Grae,Sometimes caffeine and naps just can't overcome circadian rhythms and the light's effect on serotonin levels. We's was made to sleep sometimes and to not sleep sometimes. A pacer can help during the body's off periods… unless, of course, the pacer falls asleep, too! When pacing or being paced, I kind of expect 2-5 or 3-6 a.m. to be a quiet time. Fortunately, just having some company can keep you moving down the trail. I don't know what your WS pace table's like, but I'll be sitting around Green Gate waiting to pace again once AJW paces through.As for the STOK, don't worry. 40 mgs of caffeine is child's play. Not even half a cup of coffee. Heck,most sports gels have 25 mg of caffeine.Will,Thanks for dropping by iRunFar and sharing with us. I can totally understand giving up caffeine or any addictive substance. For most of us, ultras are about competing against ourselves. Stick to your guns!Meredith, I probably would have gone preemptive on the caffeine. Let me rephrase that, I do go preemptive on the caffeine when heading into the late night hours during a 100. I like not taking in any amounts above what's in gels during the day and evening. I usually try to last a few hours into darkness, then it's time to start playing games with my head and body. I know that the sun will raise me up come morning, so it's smoke 'em if you got 'em time by midnight or 1.I can't remember where I read it yesterday, but I noticed a statement to the effect that your body clears caffeine in 6 hours and that a month long cleansing is not necessary for full effectiveness. I'm not sure I buy that. While caffeine may have some effects at hour 6 at the same intensity as at hour 0, I'd guess that an addict like me takes longer to fully reset my system. I'd like to hear more about the washout period is others know anything on the subject.

  10. Trail Goat

    Footfeathers, Are you going for a long night run before your 100. Might be good to experiment then as well. As I hinted at in my previous comment, circadian rhythms and not general fatigue can be the biggest fact when racing into the night. Best to see how you can counter that problem in addition to the general issue of fatigue.Brennen,You raise the interesting question of exactly how many members of the Wasatch Speed Goat Mountain Racing Team does it take to bring a conversation around to beer. The answer – 3. One to start the conversation, one to respond, and one to say "yeah, that's nice, now on to beer!" ;-DIan,Noted. Thanks for the link – I'll post it in the main entry.Steve,If you're saving the NoDoz for night two at HRH, what are you doing on night 1?!As for NoDoz or other caffeine pills. There are small and great to have around when you crash hours from an aid station. Certainly worth the weight in my opinion.

  11. Brennen

    So true, Goat! I was hoping the team would in the very least be an enabler, but now I'm wondering if we're already slipping into codependency.

  12. Alfred

    Will Thomas,

    I just do not run these long 50 – 100 mile races, but I just ran my best Grouse Grind this season without caffeine. I am more focused on using the proper nutrients to fuel my body.

    I am training for longer events such as a 1/2 Marathon.

    What distances do you run and what are your fueling strategies?

  13. Roger Sullivan

    I know this thread is quite old but I was trying to get input on Wired Waffles as a portable snack for 50M or 100M events carbs sugars and caffeine to keep you awake too! If anyone is still here I would love input to see if I have a market here…..

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