It was nearly one year ago, last April, that I did something you are NOT supposed to do on race day. I tried something that morning I’d never done before – I drank a short Starbucks Americano about 90 minutes before the gun was to go off (on top of the matcha I’d had about 30 minutes prior to that.
Lucky for me it paid off – I crossed with a personal best and even qualified for the blue corral in this years Sun Run 10km road race.
Was it the coffee? Normally I’d say it was a combination of many things coming together (and to achieve a PB, many things must come together!)… But in this case I’m going to say yes, indeed it was the coffee – because I qualified for that elite corral by only 1 second.
Let’s take a look at what you can expect from caffeine, how much you need to get results, and where to get the caffeine from.
Caffeine has been shown to increase performance and endurance on average a minimum of 3% (anywhere from 2% to 7%) – this translates into possibly saving 60-80 seconds over the course of what would otherwise be 45 minutes (I finished in 43:59). A 2008 study focused on runners (many tend to feature cyclists) showing individual results for an 8km race improved by 10 to 61 seconds with consumption of caffeine.
Amount of Caffeine Required
The good new is it doesn’t take much caffeine to achieve these benefits. Traditionally it was believed about 6mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight was required for the athlete to perform better. However, recent research suggests a dose of 3mg/kg will lead to maximum benefit. That means drinking a grande americano or 3 espresso shots (225mg caffeine) about an hour before running should improve your overall results. In fact some studies have shown even only half that amount enhances performance.
To receive the benefits you’ll want to ingest caffeine about 60-90 minutes prior to running (caffeine reaches peak levels in the blood in 45 – 90 minutes). You may continue to drink a caffeinated beverage right up to race start, and even take gels or sports drink with caffeine during your race. A combination of carbs and caffeine have been shown to boost performance while running – even Frank Shorter (Olympic marathon winner) had figured that one out back in 1972 as he reached for defizzed Coca-Cola in his marathon.
Sources of Caffeine
I mentioned coffee as the source of caffeine above. Certainly green tea, matcha or black tea also contains caffeine. In fact, I like to use matcha tea before each of my long runs and races. Of course tea typically does not contain as much caffeine as coffee (the following numbers are approximate – there is great variation between brands and sources):
- 250mL brewed coffee: 80-282mg (I know, huge range, the average is about 100mg)
- Short Americano (single shot espresso): 25-214mg (again, huge range, average is about 75mg)
- 1 tsp matcha tea powder: 70mg
- 250mL black tea: 25-110mg (average about 50mg)
- 250mL green tea: 25-50mg (average about 30mg)
For most runners, a large cup of coffee or a strong matcha tea would be enough to provide performance enhancing benefits. But there are a few things to keep in mind. One, everyone reacts differently to caffeine – it will boost some runners performance more than others. Second, caffeine intake before a race must be practiced (as in, don’t do what I did!!) as it can cause GI distress in some – however it may be possible to train your body to accept caffeine without negative effects. And third, you may wish to consider a “caffeine fast” in the week leading up to your race – however studies have shown removing caffeine 4 days prior to race day do not appear to heighten the performance enhancement effects (as was once thought).
Ninety percent of the adult population uses caffeine but most runners I meet do not use it for performance enhancement. That’s really the only way you’ll find me recommending caffeine 😉 And I’ll personally be drinking my matcha and Americano come race morning this year on Sun Run race day.
Sarah J Cuff, RHN
*further reading on the subject can be found in the book Caffeine for Sports Performance by Burke, Desbrow & Spriet, Human Kinetics, 2013