I consider myself an avid runner: I average thirteen kilometres six days a week. And I’m (almost) caffeine-free. No coffee or tea. No energy drinks or soft drinks. But once or twice a week, I’ll reach for a bedtime piece of dark chocolate.
Great for my REM sleep, right?
Nevertheless, 5:45 a.m. rolls around, the alarm on my phone crescendos, and no more than thirty minutes later, I’m on the road or treadmill doing my best Forrest Gump. I usually feel alert about three kilometres in, or when an occasional driver wishes me a good morning with a pleasantly long, get-off-the-road honk.
Car horns will always be music to my ears. But I wanted to find out if adding a daily dose of caffeine would have any impact on how I feel during my morning runs. And in a quantitative sense, I wanted to see if caffeine lives up to its “performance-enhancing” abilities.
I couldn’t convince myself to acquire a taste for coffee or to deal with the slosh it would create in my stomach while I ran. So I went to my local Supplement store and bought a bottle of 200-milligram caffeine tablets.
I took one every morning 30 minutes before I started running. That dose may be considered “light-weight,” but put it into perspective: one small cup of coffee contains 95 milligrams of caffeine and one serving of dark chocolate, the only source of caffeine my body knew, boasts a whopping 21.
Here’s what I learned after 30 days.
Caffeine’s Effects are Almost Immediate
Studies have recorded up to a 5 percent improvement in performance times for endurance athletes. The cyclists involved in the study took caffeine one hour prior to a time trial. Was I about to set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. to achieve the same results? Absolutely not.
And it turns out I didn’t have to! Consistently throughout the 30-day period, I started to feel the caffeine buzz kick in just 10 minutes after I swallowed the capsule.
Especially When It Comes to Getting Things Moving
Caffeine is notorious for making its consumer better acquainted with the bathroom. And yes, I discovered this to hold true. Just after I took the tablet, I had multiple urgencies to go to the bathroom every morning. And caffeine’s diuretic effect resulted in another type of morning “run” preceding my actual run.
Throughout my 30-day test, I had to make sure I felt “empty” enough before I set out the door. Otherwise, I would have to make friends with a vacant park mid-run (at least my running routes are less-traveled country roads). Not only did those mighty caffeine capsules have an effect on number two, but I also noticed a strong stench alongside number one.
The Acclaimed Performance Benefits Are Best When Going From Nothing to Something
Several studies have tested how caffeine intake enhances endurance performance. After all, until 2004 it was considered a performance-enhancing drug. There’s even still regulation of caffeine levels in Olympic athletes prior to competition.
I’ll never have to worry about being tested for caffeine levels because my blood is Olympic-negative. I’m okay with that because a Czech Republic study found that caffeine intake enhances endurance performance in sub-elite, but not elite, athletes (that’s me!).
In the first five days of taking caffeine, I noticed feeling less winded when running at harder efforts. For example, at a comparable effort, I clocked a 8 kilometre loop a minute faster than the last time I did it caffeine-free. That’s a pace about 8-second-per-kilometre. It was a new kind of “runner’s high.” My hopes that this side effect of caffeine would last throughout the full 30 days, too, were high.
But, they came back to Earth on day 6 and remained there. My body seemed to have adapted to a daily 200-milligram dose of caffeine. My perceived efforts reflected the paces I was running. For example, running 7.5 minutes per kilometre pace felt like 8.5 minutes per kilometre pace during the first few days. But then, it felt like what it was: 7.5 minutes per kilometre pace. The excitement I felt with caffeine-simulated fitness improvements turned to animosity against a capsule that made more PRs in bathroom “runs.”
And the Same Applies to the Onset of Muscle Soreness
Another study found that when endurance cyclists ingested caffeine, they experienced less perceived leg muscle soreness. I, too, experienced what felt like faster-than-normal muscle recovery alongside my caffeine experiment, but only during the first week. After that, my calves returned to their normal tight selves the mornings following hard-effort runs.
But, My Quality of Sleep Suffered
Just like my bedtime dark chocolate snack does no good for my REM sleep, ingesting 200 milligrams of caffeine in the morning messed with my sleeping patterns.
Tossing and turning was common in that first week until my system adjusted to that pill-form cappuccino. I gradually slept more soundly in weeks two, three, four, and five of my caffeine affair.
In my opinion, adding a daily intake of caffeine for fitness performance purposes is not worth it. The touted endurance and recovery benefits caffeine provides were only evident in the first few days when my body was adjusting to the substance. And that perk came alongside disrupted sleep.
After that, my body accepted caffeine as the norm, my running returned to its previous patterns, and I slept more soundly. One thing that did not change during the 30 days, however, was what happened in the bathroom. So if you are one of the 42 million Americans facing gastrointestinal issues, caffeine may be a quick fix.
But if you are like me, a sub-elite runner or any athlete for that matter, caffeine is not the over-the-counter, daily supplement that will make you Olympic-medalist material. You could add it within the hour before you want to shoot for a PR, and possibly see the benefits.
So yes, I’ve returned to dark chocolate being my sole source of caffeine. I’ve happily stored my bottle of remaining caffeine capsules in my medicine cabinet. I’ve accepted that hard runs will be hard and my muscles will probably feel the effects the next morning. I’ve enjoyed sounder sleep. And I’ve already seen my grocery bill drop as air fresheners no longer makes the receipts!
This article was originally published on Runners World.
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