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Does It Have Running Benefits?

Published November 17, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Caffeine has been used as a stimulant for centuries. It increases alertness and improves concentration, hence its popularity with drivers. Caffeine also increases oxygen consumption, raises the metabolic rate, and improves fat decomposition, making it popular for weight-reduction diets.

For many runners, drinking coffee has become an integral part of pre-race rituals. Convinced of the physical and mental benefits of caffeine, these runners believe that a cup of coffee may make the difference between a good race and a bad race. The organizers of many marathons and endurance trail runs offer coffee as part of their pre- and post-race meals. Besides bagels and bananas, coffee has become a main staple in a runner's diet.

Sprinters and distance runners drink coffee to enhance race performance. Sprinters believe that caffeine shortens their reaction time to the gun, and increases the contracting of their skeletal muscles, giving them faster race times. Distance runners believe that caffeine results in increased endurance and delayed fatigue.

The International Olympic Committee treats caffeine as a regulated drug, permitting a maximum urinary concentration of 12 micrograms per milliliter. To reach this doping concentration, an athlete would have to ingest the equivalent of eight cups of coffee in the hour preceding competition. However, lower doses of caffeine may still have an effect on athletic performance.

Researchers found that the physiological effects of caffeine on short-duration, high-intensity performance were negligible at levels under the IOC limit. However, the psychological effects on the brain - decreasing the perceived exertion of an all-out energy burst - may explain the marginal improvement over short-distance races.

Other studies showed that moderate doses of caffeine taken before exercise increased endurance. In one experiment, trained long-distance runners who took the caffeine equivalent of three cups of coffee an hour before exercise prolonged the duration of their race-pace running by up to 44 percent. Endurance cyclists showed similar results. One explanation for these findings was that caffeine enhanced the release of free fatty acids, sparing muscle glycogen in the early stages of the workout, thereby increasing endurance.

On the negative side, caffeine is a diuretic: It increases the frequency of urination. An excessive loss of body fluids results in dehydration, adversely affecting performance and endangering a runner's life. Caffeine has also been linked to increased heart rate and blood pressure, both of which increase naturally during intense exercise.

At doses higher than two or three cups of coffee, caffeine causes anxiety, insomnia, headaches, nervousness and indigestion. For the habitual user, abstinence from caffeine leads to withdrawal symptoms, including headaches and irritability.

Experts are divided on whether coffee should be a part of the last meal before a marathon.

If you are used to drinking a cup of coffee before a run, it is probably fine to drink one before a race. If you have never had coffee before a long training run, it may be a bad idea to try one before your first marathon. Take it from my friend David, who had to stop at every bathroom between the Verrazano Bridge and Central Park.

Kamal Jabbour enjoys a hot cup of coffee every morning. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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