Is Caffeine Beneficial For Ultrarunners?

A question that often get’s bounced around is whether caffeine provides benefits for sports performance. All of the products are there. You can buy caffeinated gels, drinks and food, but the information about its benefits seems relatively sparse. I decided to address this and have ploughed through numerous studies and talks (most of them by Dr Nanci Guest PHD, RD, CSCS) and have come to somewhat of a conclusion.

Like most things, caffeine affects different people in different ways. This is often influenced by your metabolism and other genetics. One person may find that a single cup of coffee sets off a buzz of alertness, while another person may not see any benefit.

Generally speaking, the vast majority of people in the endurance category (around 95%) will experience performance enhancement from consuming caffeine. For the average athlete, this improvement will be 1%-5%, which is big.

The good news for us ultra runners, is that studies show the use of caffeine being most beneficial in long endurance sports of 8 hours or more. Perfect for those of you who enjoy running lengthy ultramarathons.

So how is caffeine likely to affect your performance positively? You can use it to fuel shorter workouts, stay alert during longer sessions, or for real performance enhancement during long events.

There are however some negative affects which will affect some people. Caffeine could give you jitters, promote anxiety, disrupt sleep, or you might suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms.

Caffeine should never be used to replace or even alter good nutrition, hydration and sleep. All three of these components should be prioritised over caffeine intake.

My suggestion is trial and error. Try some caffeine products using the guidelines below and see if it works for you. The best way to do this is to train without caffeine for a couple of weeks, then with for a couple of weeks, and see if you notice a considerable difference.

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How Much Caffeine Should You Consume?

The best results have been shown in athletes who use 2-4mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight before or during their training session. Some ultra-slow metabolisers may need to push that range up to 6mg per kg of bodyweight but nobody should exceed that.

You’re probably wondering what this looks like physically. According to the USDA, an average cup of filter coffee contains 96mg of caffeine while a single shot of espresso contains around 63mg of caffeine. This will vary depending on your coffee choice and brewing method.

This means that physically, an 80kg athlete should target 2 - 3.5 cups of filter coffee, or 3-5 espresso shots.

I know this looks like a fairly large range, and the amount you need depends on your metabolism, genetics and other factors. The best advice I can give is to start with the lower end of the spectrum and only up the dose if necessary.

How Do I Put It Into Practice?

I am going to split off into three scenarios to explain where you might find caffeine use beneficial.

Scenario 1: A short workout lasting 90 minutes or less. For a training session like this, aim to consume your caffeine 30-60 minutes before your session starts. A couple of cups of coffee or a supplement will suffice. You should feel more alert for your training session and the effects should last throughout the entire session.

Scenario 2: An endurance event lasting 2 hours or more. For a session like this, you want to split your caffeine in half or maybe even smaller, regular doses. You could consume it in 30-50mg doses throughout the session at 1-2 hour intervals, and that should keep you alert, awake and energised.

Scenario 3: 24 hour + events. Caffeine has been shown to be most beneficial in the ultra endurance arena. Ideally, you will start the session without any caffeine. Good nutrition and good sleep beforehand should be enough to get you started. The time caffeine becomes useful, is during the hours where in normal life you would be resting. For example, if your day to day routine is 09.00-17.00 at work, then 18.00-22.00 relaxing, 18.00 should be the time where you start using caffeine. This should deter your body’s habit to shut down and relax at this time, helping you to keep moving, stay focused, and stay energised. In this scenario, you should start with 10-30mg of caffeine every hour, and up the dose to 30-50mg per hour if need be.

One thing I will say is don’t develop a mental dependancy on caffeine. If you use it for every single training session, then for some reason you cannot have any on race day, that could really set off some mental alarm bells. Learn to live with or without it, and use it as an enhancer, not an item that you fully depend upon either mentally or physically.

I would also recommend avoiding caffeine for late afternoon/evening workouts. Even if you can still sleep after using caffeine, it may affect your quality of sleep negatively. Quality of sleep is more important and more beneficial than caffeine use, so prioritise a good nights sleep.

Let’s sum this up with some bullet points.

When to use caffeine:

  • 30-60 minutes before a short training session.

  • Throughout longer training sessions.

  • To keep you alert overnight during long ultras.

When to avoid caffeine:

  • If it gives you the jitters.

  • If it gives you anxiety.

  • If you get withdrawal symptoms like headaches or sickness.

  • If you have high blood pressure.

  • Before evening workouts.

Where Is Caffeine Found?

Coffee - My favourite coffee is the fresh bean coffee from running inspired company ‘2 Inches Taller’. Try a bag of their ‘Ultra’ coffee. It’s the bomb! If you are going to use coffee to get your caffeine, bear in mind that it is highly acidic. Don’t do so on an empty stomach as this could cause issues like acid reflux.

Gels - I recommend the Clif Shot gels for this. You can customise the amount of caffeine in your gels making them tailored to you. Try the Mocha + Caffeine, that’s my favourite

Tablets - If you wan’t to get your caffeine amounts spot on, this is the best way to do it. Only buy caffeine tablet supplements from approved manufacturers or pharmacies.

Thank you for reading my blog, I hope you found it useful! Please take some time to browse through my website and read about the coaching and training camps that I have on offer at the moment. Your support is greatly appreciated.

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