By Hanny Allston
As a performance coach specializing in trail and ultra-distance running, I am frequently asked about the use of caffeine a supplement to performance. With almost every sports nutrition brand providing caffeinated options, from gels to chews to beverages, I believe it is important to address the question – to caffeine or not to caffeine? Sadly, as you will soon find out, whilst there are some good rules to abide by, everyone is different. Using caffeine requires you to understand the science, your own body’s response to this common stimulant, and then to deliberately practice and observe its effects during exercise.
Caffeine is a stimulant
Let us begin with the most important concept. Caffeine is a stimulant. It acts to give you a false sense of energy, helping to heighten alertness and enhance wakefulness. In competition, these effects can help someone to feel more responsive to the challenges of the sport, overcome fatigue (both physical and mental), and to also mask pain (more on this soon). However, herein lies the caution. If caffeine is a stimulant and can help someone to feel like a relative of Superman, then it is likely that this individual is working at a heightened level of physical and mental exertion. Underlying this is still the same body requiring the same amount of energy, if not more, to maintain its level of performance. If you are someone who uses caffeine, then it is highly likely that you are chewing into energy reserves faster than you would in a non-caffeinated state. Unless you are ruthless about putting this energy back in whilst on your caffeine-high, then you can be digging your own energy hole that may be difficult, or near impossible, to return from.
Caffeine is a diuretic
The same concept holds true for the effect that caffeine has on our hydration. As caffeine is a mild diuretic, it can give an athlete the sensation of needing to stop behind a tree, all the while thinking, ‘great, I must be hydrated’. If you are zinging along in your race on your caffeine high, it is also imperative to keep on top of your fluids, preferably using an electrolyte higher in sodium.
Caffeine has different effects on different people
I am a tea drinker and even a small influx of caffeine will hit me hard, so hard in fact that my mind begins to race and I begin to feel a little bit jittery. My husband on the other hand loves a coffee, or two, or three. Whilst I opt for the tea leaves, he will grind, filter and create an espresso with negligible effects on his physiology or psyche. Out on the trail, the enormous difference of caffeine’s effects on our bodies continues to be evident. For me, even a portion of a caffeinated gel is like putting a firecracker in a tin can. The nearly instantaneous pulse of caffeine resonates throughout my body, causing me to feel zingy, jittery and uncomfortable. However, for my husband, he will really, really notice the lack of caffeine in his system if we begin early in the morning or are running for extensively prolonged periods of time. For example, if he skips his morning coffee, or those later in the day, the lack of caffeine leaves his normally caffeinated body feeling lethargic and stagnant. Utilising a caffeinated gel during these lower periods makes a lot of sense, albeit carefully ensuring that enough energy is also replaced to combat its stimulating effects. This is imperative to avoid crashing and burning later.
Caffeine and women
Fascinatingly, studies are now coming to light about the role of caffeine on a woman’s body, and how the effect varies depending on her hormonal status. For example, information shows that the metabolism of caffeine during the first two weeks of a woman’s cycle is similar to that of men, but then in the second two weeks women show higher peak levels following ingestion, meaning that the caffeine will stay in her body for longer. This is also true for many women using certain forms of birth control. I would recommend that if you are a woman and are sensitive to caffeine, begin to notice and document its effects on your body at different times of your menstrual cycle. You may observe that your sensitivity to this stimulant may go up and down with the changes in your hormonal levels, thus requiring you to adapt your approach during exercise.
Caffeine and stress
Some athletes are highly susceptible to pre-race exercise stress or anxiety. For these athletes, I would strongly recommend steering clear of caffeine prior-to, or in the early phases of a race as it has the potential to enhance the cortisol stress response. Too much stress too early on can lead to burning more calories than desired, leading to a potential deficit later in the event.
Caffeine for pain
Interestingly, one of the greatest benefits of caffeine during exercise is that is becomes a potent masker of pain. That is, during exercise, it can have an effect of similar proportions to that of taking two Panadol tablets. There have certainly been occasions when I have had to tap into this during the depths of a long, difficult ultra-distance run. For example, on one such adventure I had a sudden, sharp onset of ITB syndrome with symptoms of jabbing pain in the front of my patellar. No amount of hobbling helped and deep down I knew that this compensation would only make the problem worse. Within 10 minutes of consuming a caffeinated gel, I had not just climbed out of this hobbling hole, but the pain had completely disappeared! I believe that this was also due to my heightened ability to improve my motor patterning, once again tapping into the strength of my gluteal muscles that had become lazy and non-responsive due to mental and physical fatigue. Amazingly, I experienced no more knee pain for the remaining six hours of this long mission.
In summary, caffeine certainly does have a role during exercise. It can help us to feel alert, agile and responsive to the demands of the challenges we have set ourselves, and not to forget its effects on pain. However, it is imperative to remember that it is a stimulant. For these reasons, I would urge all athletes to develop insight into how it affects them on an individual level, and also to consider keeping it up your sleeve as a trump card for later in the race. This will help you to experience that sensation of finishing with fire, whilst also helping to prevent digging energy deficits due to overexertion too early in an event.