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Can A Cup (Or Two) Of Coffee Improve Performance?

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published May 18, 2012
Photo: Robert Murphy

British study says high doses of caffeine can improve performance by as much as six percent.

OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a caffeine fiend — have been for almost six years now after never having so much as sipped on coffee, tea or even much soda at any time during my first 24 years of existence.

A grande-sized black coffee from Starbucks in the morning and a tall one mid-afternoon has become the seven-day-a-week standard these days. As ashamed as I am to admit it, consuming caffeinated beverages has become something I do now on a daily basis. In addition to my habitual caffeine consumption, part of my current race-day routine involves downing a steaming cuppa joe exactly two hours before the starter’s gun goes off. It’s become as important a part of the preparation process to me as making sure my racing flats are tied tightly.

Why is this?

Aside from the obvious side effects of feeling awake and alert almost instantaneously, my body truly feels like it is more primed for a peak performance on the starting line than if I had missed my morning cup of coffee. Maybe it’s mental, maybe not, but a British study seems to support some of my suspicions and says caffeine consumption may provide a performance benefit for endurance athletes such as myself.

RELATED: The Pros And Cons To Caffeine-Infused Training And Racing

How beneficial? “A small increase in performance via caffeine could mean the difference between a gold medal in the Olympics and an also-ran?” Dr. Rob James, lead researcher at Coventry University in England, was quoted as saying in a June 2010 article on FoxNews.com.

James, who announced the complete results of the study at the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting in Prague on June 30, 2010, says high doses of caffeine boosted muscle power output and endurance and improved performance by almost six percent – yes, six percent!

So, say you consume a couple cups of coffee or tea before running a personal best in your next race, should you then be busted for using a potential performance-enhancing drug? It depends on who you ask. The World Anti-Doping Agency doesn’t think so, and hasn’t thought so since taking caffeine off the banned substance list in 2004. Interestingly enough, however, the NCAA feels differently, saying “if the concentration [of caffeine] in urine exceeds 15 micrograms/milliliter” an athlete will be suspended from competition.

The two things that need to be scrutinized a little more closely here are how much caffeine constitutes a “high” dosage, and just how massive a six-percent performance improvement really is, especially for faster athletes.

For a 135-lb athlete such as myself, this equates to roughly 48 ounces of coffee, or four 12-ounce cups, within a few hours of competition. In a nutshell, someone like me would have to ingest caffeine pills, inject themselves with a caffeine concentrate or have the most efficient bladder on the planet to be able to consume this amount of caffeine under normal circumstances.

RELATED: Is It Necessary To Withdraw From Daily Coffee?

A six percent improvement in performance seems to be on the high side too, especially for elite, or sub-elite level athletes. In a 31-minute 10K runner, for example, that yields an improvement of 1 minute, 51.6 seconds over 6.2 miles of racing. Heck, even a three-percent improvement in the same scenario would take almost a minute off that fast of a finishing time. At a pace of 5-minutes per mile or faster, a six-percent performance improvement is absurd and definitely worth taking a deeper look at.

Personally, I’ve never even come close to this amount of improvement over any distance since I started my twice-a-day caffeine kick, but I do believe the undeniable stimulation that caffeine provides my central nervous system keeps my senses sharp when it’s time to race, which in turn helps me to perform better than if I were standing there feeling lethargic on the starting line. I suspect that for other habitual coffee-drinking endurance athletes, the same belief holds true.

So, what can be concluded from this study? You can do worse than downing a cup of coffee or tea before your next big race or key workout. In fact, if you have a hard time waking up and getting focused before the starter’s gun goes off, it might just be the wake-up call you need.

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College, he coaches both elite and age-group runners and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica at the 2012 Olympics. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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