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The Performance Enhancing Benefits of Caffeine for Runners

Posted by George Parker on
The Performance Enhancing Benefits of Caffeine for Runners

Desiree Linden stopped drinking coffee the week before the 2018 Boston Marathon and won the race. Desi, like many of us runners, is a coffee snob and owns her own Coffee Company called Linden X Two.

Why would she stop drinking caffeine?

Caffeine is a Performance Enhancer
Caffeine is a stimulant available to runners everywhere that was legalized by the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”) in 2004. Caffeine helps with alertness and concentration, which is helpful during a race. But its true performance-enhancing benefits are ergogenic, increasing endurance and stamina. It is remarkably ingenious how this process works in your body.

Your body relies on the energy molecule ATP (link to Peregrune) to power cellular activity for running and all other exercises. When you run, your body consumes ATP, which releases as a byproduct the component molecule adenosine (the “A” in ATP). Receptors in the brain measure the concentration of adenosine in the blood. As the level of adenosine rises, your brain signals that you are tired and need to sleep. During sleep, your body clears adenosine by converting it back to ATP to power the next day’s activity. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, effectively preventing the brain from signaling fatigue.

Caffeine Cycling
Desi stopped drinking caffeine before the Boston Marathon as part of a well-known process among athletes called “caffeine cycling.” Caffeine cycling involves stopping caffeine before an important race to reduce the body’s tolerance. Then, caffeine is reintroduced immediately before the race to amplify the performance-enhancing benefits.

To implement caffeine cycling as a runner, stop drinking caffeine one to two weeks before your event. This won't be easy! There are plenty of resources on the internet on giving up caffeine, which will prepare you for the process but cannot remove the discomfort you will experience. You will go through caffeine withdrawal depending on how reliant you are on caffeine today. You’ll have headaches, drowsiness, and a general fog will settle over your mind. But after a few days, you will feel better. Drowsiness will be a sign of general fatigue rather than a lack of caffeine. You will begin to sleep when you are tired and wake when rested. You may find you are naturally waking and going to sleep earlier.

How Much Caffeine is Optimal?
More caffeine is not always better, and some is better than none. A Journal of Applied Physiology[1] study demonstrated that ingesting 9 mg/kg does not boost performance over a moderate dose of 3-6 mg/kg. Even a lower 1-3 mg/kg dose can produce ergogenic effects. The optimal amount in the literature seems to settle on 3-6 mg/kg.

Athlete Weight

1-3 mg/kg

3-6 mg/kg

9 mg/kg

135 lbs.

61 – 184

184 – 368


160 lbs.

73 – 218

218 – 436


190 lbs.

86 – 259

259 – 518



When to Reintroduce Caffeine Before Race
Then it is time to reintroduce caffeine if you so choose! Introducing caffeine on the day of your race will generate maximum benefits. The benefits of caffeine are most significant for longer distances such as 5K, 10K, and marathons. It would be best to time the intake 45 to 60 minutes before your run to allow caffeine to enter your bloodstream fully.

Let us say you are a 135-pound runner as an example. Using the above chart as a guide, you should aim for around 184 mg of caffeine. A medium cup of Dunkin’ Coffee has 210 mg, and Clif Shot Energy Gels have variants with 100 mg of caffeine. A 16oz Red Bull has 150 mg of caffeine.

Should You Caffeine Cycle
A better question might be, “Are you addicted to caffeine.” If so, it may be worth exploring how your body might feel if it was not caffeinated daily. This sounds crazy, but maybe, there are benefits. If this does sound crazy, it might still be worth exploring giving up coffee as part of your “A” race training plan. You would want to experiment with this during training. You could stop consuming caffeine the week before a key tempo or long run at a marathon pace. Experiment with caffeine reintroduction before your big workout. How did you feel? Use that experience to guide your caffeine cycling before the “A” race of the season.

Best wishes on chasing your running goals!


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