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The Endurance Dietitian: The Benefits of Caffeine for Performance

By Kim McDevitt, MPH RD on August 19, 2014, categorized in Endurance, Strength + Conditioning

The Endurance Dietitian: The Benefits of Caffeine for Performance

Welcome to my all-new regular column called The Endurance Dietitian! If you’re like me, and define a large portion of your life with training plans, run clubs, “long-run-Sundays,” and chasing PRs, you’re in the right place. It seems daily we’re reading about the next best ingredient or trend we should be including into our running lifestyle. I’m here to share my passion for sports nutrition by breaking down the technical jargon of the current trends, weeding through the research and explaining what you need to know. Think of this as our runner girl talk (don’t worry—boys can still eavesdrop).

How caffeine does more than help us run faster

For the past few weeks my running has felt like junk: heavy legs, busy mind, and an overall feeling of blah. Then I ran a 10K race this weekend. And I shocked myself. My legs felt light, my mind focused, and my speed was a solid minute and a half faster per mile than my normal pace.

Was it luck?

While I certainly believe race day adrenaline, adequate rest, and focused nutrition for the days leading up to a race can contribute to improved race day performance, I know there was one other factor that was different than my normal run days: caffeine.

Caffeine 411

I’ve been laying off the caffeine train lately. Caffeine acts on the central nervous system, influencing cortisol levels and affecting the adrenal glands, and excessive intake can result in addictive consumption patterns, jitteriness and improper sleep patterns. For me, given my overall exercise routine, coupled with everyday stresses of life, I try not to add additional stimulation to my adrenal system day-in and day-out.

That being said, research supports moderate caffeine consumption (~200mg1 / 16oz cup coffee) as beneficial to overall health, including lowering some risk of health complications2. So not drinking caffeine doesn’t mean I’m “healthier,” per se.

Caffeine is also an ergogenic aid. Its performance-boosting effect promises everything from faster race times to improved concentration. (Trying to really feel the effects? Recalibrate by cutting all caffeine out of your diet for a few days. Caffeine-feign? Don’t worry. 5 days sans should do the trick)

But, research is now telling us that caffeine is more than just an ergogenic aid. Caffeine has the ability to influence metabolic, respiratory and cardiovascular body systems, too.

Reasons To Reach

Thanks to extensive available research, we have four, well-researched benefits of caffeine consumption:

  1. Brain Boost: Moderate coffee drinking shows improved memory, mental focus and clarity with recent research showing one cup boosting memory function up to 24 hours after consumption3,4.
  2. Reduced pain: The threshold for high intensity activity is shown to be greater post-consumption of caffeine, proving caffeine’s ability to dull pain and increase activity threshold level5
  3. Increased calorie burn and metabolic rate: Caffeine shows the ability to stimulate hormones, which tell the body to burn fat as fuel. It also can increase your basal metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories at rest) by 5 to 10 percent. The higher the metabolic rate, the easier it is for us to lose weight6
  4. Endurance enhancement: Glycogen, the stored form of energy in the body, is used first during sport. Research shows caffeine’s ability to slow the rate in which we deplete glycogen, allowing us endurance athletes to push harder, longer7.

One more thing.

While running with caffeine can make you feel like you’re on cloud 9, and moderate intake can be beneficial, it’s still easy to overdo it. Drink plenty of water, limit your intake, and give yourself at least 6 hours between consumption and bed time.

Caffeine sources expand far beyond coffee, with some providing other nutritional benefits including antioxidants, like those found in green tea.  Set a goal to consume no more caffeine than that found in 1 to 2 cups coffee, a double shot of espresso or medium Americano. Beyond coffee, green tea and/or yerba maté offer less caffeine and added nutrients. If you are looking to use caffeine for endurance boosting effects, recommended timing is 15 minutes to 1 hour prior to sport.7

And, if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive it’s advised to swap that cup with a non-stimulating beverage of choice (like herbal tea or infused waters).

Are you a fan of caffeine? What is your drink of choice?


  1. Food and Drug Administration (2007). Caffeine and Your Body Accessed 4/25/13 from http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/UCM205286.pdf
  2. Van Dam RM. (2008). Coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Applied physiology, nutrition and metabolism 33 (6): 1269-1283
  3. Johnson-Kozlow, M. et.al. (2002). Coffee consumption and Cognitive Function among Older Adults. American Journal of Epidemiology. 156 (9):842-850. Accessed on 8/4/2014 from http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/156/9/842.full
  4. Borota, Daniel. Et.al. (2014) Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans. Nature Neuroscience. 7,201–203.
  5. Tarnopolsky MA. (2008) Effect of caffeine on the neuromuscular system – potential as an ergogenic aid Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism. 33(6):1284-9
  6. Westerterp-Plantenga, M.S. (2010) Green tea catechins, caffeine and body-weight regulation. Physiology & Behavior. 100 (1): 42-46.
  7. Ganio, M.S. et al. (2009) Effect of caffeine on sport-specific endurance performance: a systematic review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23(1):315-24. Accessed on 8/6/2014 from http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2009/01000/Effect_of_Caffeine_on_Sport_Specific_Endurance.46.aspx