What Are the Health Benefits of Caffeine? Why You Should Start Drinking Coffee to Run Faster.

Caffeine is a proven performance-enhancer, shown to improve athletic ability in endurance events like distance running.  This is great news because I am a coffee lover.  I don’t drink coffee every day, but about 3-4 days a week I like to have a cup of good, steaming coffee.

Ready to Get Jacked Up to Race?!

And before a race, I always have about 10-12 ounces of coffee.  It makes me feel alert, energized, and ready to work hard.  If you were to deprive me of my coffee before the gun fired, I would be one unhappy runner.

When I talk to other runners, I learn there are some who don’t drink coffee before races.  Many of them have reservations about the health benefits of caffeine so they steer clear of coffee – or encourage others to avoid it.  This is crazy to me.  Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world!

I was not always such a strong proponent of coffee.  Before my senior year in college, I never drank coffee.  After reading about its performance-enhancing effects, I started drinking cold black coffee before races and I was instantly a convert.  Of course, the faster times (I ran PR’s in six events my senior year) were due to better training but coffee probably played a small role.

Coffee as a Performance-Enhancer

Drinking coffee strategically can definitely make you a faster runner.  A recent British study has shown that caffeine consumption can improve athletic performance in endurance activity like distance running.  Mario Fraioli discussed caffeine consumption at Competitor and the same study was mentioned on Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.

In addition to that study, I’ve learned that caffeine has been studied as it relates to athletic performance since the 1970’s.  And the results are extraordinary: study after study show that caffeine improves your ability to work harder.

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada is incredulous that anyone could even be on the fence about consuming caffeine for improved performance.  “There is so much data on this that it’s unbelievable.  It’s just unequivocal that caffeine improves performance. It’s been shown in well-respected labs in multiple places around the world,” he noted.

So how does it make you faster?  There are several theories:

  1. Caffeine improves the body’s ability to burn fat, sparing glucose for late in the race when it’s most needed.
  2. Caffeine releases calcium into the muscles, increasing their power output and enabling you to race longer and faster.
  3. Caffeine affects your brain’s interpretation of exhaustion – essentially tricking you to think you can run faster (my favorite!).
  4. Caffeine improves focus so you can be more attentive to racing and less likely to be distracted.

Even elite athletes understand the benefits of caffeine and regularly take advantage of coffee: Americans Ryan Hall, Josh Cox, and Meb Keflezighi all drink coffee regularly to help them with tough workouts and races.

Science, anecdotal evidence, and the behavior of the elites is clearly pointing to caffeine consumption as performance-enhancing.  Despite this conclusion, there are some who believe that coffee isn’t healthy.

I hear too frequently, “I gave up coffee – I’m trying to be healthy.”  Uhh…what?!

The Health Benefits of Coffee

Even if caffeine helps you run faster, why coffee?  Why not Red Bull or a can of Pepsi?  The number one reason that you should avoid energy drinks and soda is that they are laden with sugar, chemicals, and a host of other ingredients that you probably don’t want in your body (in 2009 it was found that Red Bull exported from Austria contained trace amounts of cocaine).

Coffee is the clear winner in the energy drink category because it’s simply ground coffee beans and water.  You can even buy organic if you’re into that.  It can become unhealthy when you start adding sugar, whipped cream, and flavored syrups – but you won’t do that on race day, will you?

There are a lot of bogus myths out there about caffeine: it causes dehydration and heart disease, it can put you at risk for hypertension and cancer, and it speeds up bone loss.  None of this is true.

Caffeinated coffee can actually reduce your chance of Type II diabates, Parkinson’s disease, and improve your memory, sense of well-being, and reaction time.  Don’t take my word for it.

One study showed that regular coffee drinkers were more likely to gain weight than those who did not drink coffee.  Intuitively, I would guess that’s because they regularly put in too much sugar and cream.  Skip the sugar and enjoy milk in your morning joe.

Coffee is so healthy because of its antioxidants – potent anti-inflammatory substances that fight disease.  They offer protection against a host of diseases, according to Harvard Medical School.

Are you convinced yet?!

My next race is soon and even though it’s a “twilight” race (it starts at 8:45pm and finishes under flood lights), I will be drinking my big cup of coffee before the start.  I trust the science, doctors, professional runners, health activists, and my past experience.

Are you a coffee drinker before hard workouts and races?  Has it ever backfired and made you run slower?  Let me know in the comments!

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