Whether you’re a competitive racer or a recreational runner, you likely have a performance-enhancing drug sitting right on your kitchen counter: coffee.
Caffeine may be the most widely used stimulant in the world, and studies have found that moderate doses before exercise increase performance, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
It’s also perfectly legal, at least in the amounts you’re likely to ingest by drinking your morning coffee or eating a few caffeinated energy gels during a long run or bike ride. The Olympics no longer ban caffeine, although the National Collegiate Athletic Association disqualifies student athletes whose urine contains more than 15 mcg/ml of caffeine.
That’s a whole lot of caffeine. In an online post, the NCAA says it would take about 17 caffeinated soft drinks to put a student athlete over the limit.
The consensus is that caffeine gives athletes a heightened sense of well-being and a decreased perception of exertion, said Kathleen Deegan, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor at California State University, Sacramento.
“In other words, they don’t hurt, so they can work out longer and harder,” said Deegan, who is the nutritionist for all the Sac State sports teams.
That feeling of energy comes from the body’s reaction to the caffeine, which increases heart rate and the amount of blood being pumped. She cautioned that consuming too much caffeine could prompt athletes to push themselves to the point where they get injured.
So what’s a reasonable amount? Studies suggest it doesn’t take much to give athletes a boost. The American College of Sports Medicine said benefits have been found when athletes consume anywhere from 3 mg to 9 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight – the equivalent of about two to six cups of coffee.
Moderation is good, experts warn, as too much caffeine could give you the jitters, an upset stomach or send you running to the bathroom.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 600 mg of caffeine or more (about four to seven cups of coffee) a day is generally considered too much. The average American consumes about 300 mg of caffeine a day, the agency said.
Charlie Brenneman, 37, is one elite Sacramento-area runner who uses caffeine. Brenneman coaches runners for the Sacramento Running Association, the organization that puts on the California International Marathon every year.
Brenneman said he dislikes coffee, so instead will consume some energy gel or sport chews with caffeine an hour before an event. He estimates he takes 100 mg to 150 mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to about one cup of coffee.
“Knowing that a simple cup or two of coffee is enough to potentially improve performance, and given the large amount of people who drink it, personally I like to try to match that if I can,” he said in an email interview.
At the same time, Brenneman isn’t convinced caffeine makes that much difference. Nutrition – particularly carbohydrate consumption – is a much more important factor in performance, he said.
“I’ve run well whether or not I have had caffeine before challenging workouts or races,” Brenneman said. “But I do know I almost always run poorly if my diet is bad and/or I am not getting enough fuel in my tank.”
Athletes working out for more than two hours or doing more than an hour of running are advised to take in 30 grams to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. These can come from sports drinks, gels and other energy products.
Many of the carbohydrate gels on the market also contain caffeine – usually anywhere from about 20 mg to 50 mg.
Fleet Feet Sports Sacramento, a running store in midtown Sacramento, sells carbohydrate gels both with and without caffeine.
“I don’t know if either one is more popular,” general manager Dusty Robinson said.
People who don’t ingest caffeine on a regular basis tend to shy away from the caffeinated gels, Robinson said. But others will have the caffeinated gels and take them late in the race to get “a lift in alertness.”
The fact that caffeine is ubiquitous doesn’t mean no one in the athletic community is concerned about abuse. Deegan said she would never recommend an athlete attempting his or her first marathon use caffeine supplements found in pills or gels.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a lesser perception of how you’re feeling,” she said.