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  • Writer's pictureAllie Stoeffler, RD

Kickstarting with Coffee

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

If you are one of those people who mentally and physically cannot start your day without your habitual cup of Joe, you are not alone. Statistics are currently showing that people in the United States collectively consume about 66 billion cups of coffee per year. The great news is, in addition to warming your body and soul in the morning, extensive research also shows associations between coffee consumption and an endurance edge. Unsurprisingly, upwards of 89% of elite endurance athletes utilize coffee and caffeine to their advantage before and during events.

Why Should You Care?

Before Running

Most research is currently showing that having caffeinated coffee an hour before exercise can improve performance by 11% and decrease your perception of effort by 6%. One research article looking specifically at endurance athletes found that pre-exercise caffeine resulted in an average time improvement of 2.1%. If you compare that improvement to the fastest half-marathon time as a 2018, that 2.1% would be the difference between 1st place (58:23) and 97th place (59:45)! There are multiple factors that may contribute to this performance advantage.

As we know, running can be just as much of a mental sport as a physical sport. Coffee has been shown to block the receptors in the brain that are responsible for sensing pain and fatigue, meaning that coffee has the ability to improve your energy, alertness, and motivation to run as well as make your effort seem easier. It also helps to increase the circulation of endorphins in your brain, which are the same hormones that are responsible for the famous “runner’s high”. With this going for you, you might just be able to push yourself a little bit further a little bit faster.

In addition to providing a mental push, coffee is also a known stimulant that acts on many parts of your body to get you moving. One of the physiologic advantages to drinking coffee before your workout is that the caffeine in it makes your body more efficient at burning fat for fuel, meaning you won’t have to tap into your body’s stored energy (glycogen) quite as quickly. This is huge for longer runs because hitting empty on your glycogen gas tank is what causes runners to “hit the wall” and run out of energy to finish a race.

After Running

Extensive research has been done on the effects of coffee before exercise, but new findings are coming out on the potential benefits of consuming coffee as part of your recovery. Although coffee will not replace your need to refuel with water and electrolytes, it is one of the largest contributors of antioxidants in the human diet, meaning it reduces inflammation caused by working your muscles.

After a workout, our bodies need carbs to replenish those glycogen stores, and current research suggests that consuming coffee along with a good carb source after a workout can improve your ability to replenish your glycogen stores by 66%! Want to give it a shot? Try one of my favorite protein shake recipes to boost your recovery:

  • 1 frozen banana

  • 1 cup chilled brewed coffee

  • ¾ cup milk

  • 1 scoop vanilla protein powder

  • Blended with ice to desired consistency

How Much Do You Need?

Performance enhancement can be seen in as little as 1 milligram of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, but the general recommendation is 3-6 mg per kg depending on your caffeine tolerance. For a 145-pound (~66kg) individual, this would be 197-395 mg of caffeine, which can be achieved by drinking 2-4 cups of plain brewed coffee. However, more is not always better. At levels over this, you may start to feel shaky and escalate your nerves at the starting line.

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Not all coffee is created equally. Flavor shots, creamers, and blended concoctions can transform coffee from being your basic bean juice into an indulgent dessert. Enjoy your coffee and its benefits, but if you’re not one to drink your coffee black, be conscious of how your add-ins contribute to your daily calorie intake and affect your performance. A coffee with two creamers and two sugars will add 70 calories to your day. Now, multiply that by a few cups per day, and you could have consumed a nutritionally dense snack for the same number of calories!

Another notable point is that everyone reacts to coffee differently, especially in terms of stomach discomfort, so it’s important to experiment during training to see what works best for you. Coffee is known for its laxative effects, meaning you may need to give yourself enough time for your bowels to run before you start off on your run. Also warrant yourself some extra time for milk or cream to digest if you choose to add them to your coffee.

Coffee is not a cure-all, but if it is already part of your diet, try being strategic about it to see what kind of performance boosts it may give you. It’s worth an [espresso] shot!

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