During most of my running clinics, the subject of caffeine is frequently raised. "Is there any benefit from taking coffee before a race?" someone will ask. My answer has always been: "It gets me to the line."
I have never been a scientist about caffeine. I have ignored the evidence pro and con. Drinking coffee or some other caffeine-containing drink has always been the way I jump start my engine in the morning. Life does not get under way until my first cup of coffee in the morning.
On race day, my standard operating procedure is coffee on arising, followed by a diet cola on the drive to the race. Runners have been described as people with energy, dedication and discipline. I like to think I share in those qualities - but not before my cup of coffee. Coffee takes me out of my drowsy half-awakened state and transforms me into a person eager to get on with the heroic quest.
Coffee lovers are familiar with these matutinal effects. And that first cup drunk, the world is ready to be conquered and I am equal to the task.
These psychological effects of caffeine cannot be denied. It does away with what the psychologists call "task aversion." I am no longer thinking of reasons not to run this race. I am willing and wanting to join my friends at the starting line of this agony-to-be.
Exercise physiologists, however, demand more of caffeine. They are interested in its effect on performance. Will caffeine lower a runner's time in a road race?
Some years ago, Dr. David Costill reported experiments suggesting that caffeine made more fat available for energy in running. If so, this would conserve the valuable
glycogen sugar in the muscles for the later stages of long-distance runs.Initially, this caused quite a stir. Costill stated that this was a research experiment and not a recommendation to use caffeine. The upshot of the controversy was a loss of interest in further study of the effects of caffeine on endurance performance.
Recently, at the 1991 American College of Sport Medicine Meeting, two reports, one from Sweden, the other from Canada, have revived interest in the possible benefits of caffeine for distance runners and cyclists.
The cyclist study was done at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Eight cyclists were given 9 milligrams of caffeine one hour before one-time trial and a placebo one hour before the other. Then they were exercised to exhaustion.
Assays of muscle glycogen were done during the time trials. The caffeine group used less glycogen during the first 15 minutes and also had more glycogen left at the point of exhaustion. The investigators concluded that the caffeine spares muscle glycogen during the first 15 minutes. Thus, a greater amount of glycogen is available in later stages.
The running study came out of the University of Guelph. Seven elite runners exercised to exhaustion both on the treadmill and on an exercise bike. Ingestion of 9 milligrams of caffeine one hour prior to running increased endurance time from 49 minutes with the placebo to 71 minutes with the caffeine.
The investigators discovered a concomitant elevation of adrenalin when the caffeine was taken. Mild elevations occurred prior to the running, but the major changes took place during exercise.
These reports should be taken in contest with the considerable research being done on carbohydrate-loading before and during races. Many of those studies have shown improved performance and increased time to exhaustion by supplementing the body's sugar stores. Some experiments suggest, however, that once muscle glycogen is used during a race, no replacement drink will replenish those muscle stores.
It now appears that caffeine may be the final ingredient in assuring maximal performance. The distance runner, for a variety of reasons, needs to carbohydrate load before a race. In addition, the runner has to take quantities of carbohydrate at regular intervals during the race. And, most likely, the runner has to add at least one more item to that program before the races begins - caffeine.
My body knew that all along.