For the last month or so, I’ve been skipping my morning coffee and choosing caffeine pills each Sunday before my long run or ride. Gasp, I know. I’m not really a complete nutrition purest especially when it comes to “training nutrition,” but actually writing it makes it sound worse, like I’m confessing to something horrible: popping caffeine pills.
For me, it’s kind of been an experiment of one; I wanted to see, feel, and train through the effects of caffeine supplements before I ever recommended any of my clients try it (many ask). And, I’ll tell you, I may just be hooked.
At the same time, I’d been planning to conquer 2 goals this Autumn: A challenging run with 3000 feet of elevation gain in 10-11 miles and 2 hours. I made up this goal to push myself a bit outside of my running comfort zone. And, second, I’d been planning an all-out sprint up Lookout Mountain Road to Buffalo Bill’s Grave, on a course that’s raced as “the Lookout Mountain Hill Climb” each year, and has now been part of the Pro Cycling Challenge for two years.
Seemed like the perfect time for an experiment to me. Caffeine and 2-stomach-wrenching goals. What could possibly go wrong? Here’s what happened…but first, a bit of background on my own caffeine intake, and what caffeine has been touted to do in research and practice.
Like many people I know, and clients with whom I work, I’m a 12-ounce-per-day coffee drinker, and I like very strong coffee. If the average coffee has 100 mg caffeine per 8 ounces, I’d be willing to bet mine has at least 200-250 milligrams. You know the kind. I’ve known for years that this is a bit of a problem for me when I want to ride or run early in the mornings (with 4 kids, early in the mornings is often all I’ve got…and yes, I need my coffee). I’ve always been faced with the dilemma of either not drinking coffee before I leave (see consequences of this below) or drinking coffee 15-30 minutes before leaving and riding with a sour-stomach for at least the first 30-60 minutes due to coffee, but not the caffeine necessarily.
As someone whose body expects 250-350 milligrams of caffeine each morning, I’ve set up sort of a “baseline” for my body, both mentally and physically. When I don’t get my coffee and its caffeine, I will get a slight headache and will also feel tired and less-than-sharp. On the bike, this simply feels like I’m draggin’ (whether or not I actually am) and that the effort is harder than it should be given my training.
Those are the issues. And, it’s for these reasons that I usually try to get clients who drink several cups of coffee, or caffeine throughout the entire day, to reign it in a bit. It’s not a health issue, in my opinion. It’s a logistics issue – can you get yourself back to baseline without wrecking your stomach before a race or early training?
Despite these issues, I’ve also used caffeine sparingly on very challenging rides, when anticipating a wall. But I’ve used it either in a gel or a drink, and generally at smaller concentrations than most supplements. I’ve used it in the last hour of a 100-mile mountain bike race (12,000 feet elevation gain) and when I hit a big “wall” during a 2-day Kokepelli Trail adventure. In both cases, it pepped me up, and helped me finish strong (or at least stronger than I would have otherwise). The gels I use only have 25 mg caffeine and go down easy, so these haven’t been an issue for me in terms of stomach problems or caffeine overload. A Red Bull on the other hand (used on Kokeplli), has a few disadvantages for me: 1) I hate the taste. 2) They don’t settle well in my stomach while riding, much like coffee. 3) An 8-12 ounce liquid caffeine supplement is an awful lot of weight to carry on a 90 mile ride through the desert compared to a tiny pill.
As much as I hate to say it, it seems my answer may come in a cheap little white pill.
It’s generally accepted that caffeine works well as a mental booster. And, recently studies have shown that caffeine works well as a physical booster, too: It helps female volleyball players hit the ball harder and jump higher, rowers go farther, and cyclists go faster in a 20K time trial.
A large body of research shows caffeine helps in “pretty much every kind of endurance exercise,” giving a performance advantage of 1.5 percent to 5 percent, says Mark Glaister, an exercise physiologist at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham, U.K., and an author of the recent cycling study.
“Of all the legal supplements an athlete could take, it has the biggest effect on performance,” he says. Although the mechanism isn’t completely understood, many believe that caffeine increases the frequency or size of neural transmissions and suppresses pain. According to Glaister, it’s not clear that it speeds very short sprints (he’s studying this further), but it can help in any burst of activity that lasts longer than about a minute.
The dose? Athletes see a benefit with a dose of between 3 to 6 mg per kg of body weight, which means that I need 150-300 mg caffeine for a benefit (similar to my regular coffee intake), and a 165-pound athlete needs 225-450 mg caffeine for results. As for timing, it takes 30 to 60 minutes for caffeine levels to peak in the body, but you can start to feel some effects as soon as 15 minutes or so. In case you’re wondering, caffeine is no longer on the banned list of substances at the Olympic level (or else I’d never recommend it!), and it’s concentration is restricted, but not banned, by the NCAA.
Personally, I’d love to see research on performance when the opposite occurs, when a caffeine addicted athlete fails to meet his or her baseline.
I took 200 milligrams from a supplement called No Doze 15 minutes before I started my run and my ride. My run was long, and I took another 100 mg at the one hour mid-point because I anticipated the second hard climb at 90 minutes. My ride only lasted just 25:03 minutes, so there wasn’t a need for another dose.
Although I didn’t set any speed records on my run, I felt great the entire time and finished strong despite it being about 1000 feet of elevation and 30 minutes longer than most of my runs. I truly believe it helped me push through pain on the 2nd climb and simply feel slightly less effort than I would have otherwise. Finished strong with no stomach issues or jitters whatsoever.
My ride was also great…but, it hurt. Twenty-five minutes of all-out sprint on a 1200-foot climb is simply tough, for me at least. But, I was very happy with my time and again, no stomach issues. Although I can’t say for sure that the caffeine had an impact, I would suspect it did based on the research and my results. And, it certainly alleviated the negative effects of either drinking coffee and suffering from a sour stomach or going without and riding through a below-baseline stupor and headache. For me, these benefits are enough to continue to use caffeine pills before early morning training and longer, challenging workouts.
Have you used caffeine pills or supplements? If yes, what have been your results? Do you feel like you require your normal coffee/caffeine before morning training and run into the same issues that I do? Or do you have another strategy? Please share your experiences as well…Let’s chat!
Fuel Your Ride. Nourish Your Body.