The Effects of Drinking Coffee Before Running

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Some people drink coffee before they go for a run and never have any issues. Others experience GI issues, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, or heartburn if they drink coffee before running.

If you tolerate and even need coffee to get you going in the morning, know that it's safe to enjoy a cup before you head out for your run. However, there are some pros and cons to consider before you brew.

Pros and Cons of Coffee for Runners

Pros
  • Improved mental alertness

  • Decreased perception of effort

  • May boost fat utilization

  • May increase pace

Cons
  • Gastrointestinal distress

  • May cause headaches

  • May cause jitters

  • Increased urination

Benefits

You may find that drinking a cup of coffee before a run or race has a positive effect. Caffeine is a preferred pre-workout supplement. In fact, one study found three of four Olympic athletes use caffeine to increase their performance, with endurance athletes being the most likely to use caffeine.

Caffeine is easily accessible and available in many forms. As a potential aid to running, it has been extensively studied—and with positive findings. For example, a study of 15 well-trained runners and 15 recreational runners in a 5-kilometer trial showed an average of 1% improvement in time when caffeine was consumed pre-run.

Some athletes might get this benefit because caffeine is known to decrease the perception of effort. Caffeine blocks a molecule called adenosine (which is responsible for regulating the sleep-wake cycle) from telling your brain to slow down in preparation for sleep. If you don't feel like you are working hard, you may be able to sustain your effort for a longer period of time.

Research also shows that caffeine boosts your mental alertness, improves your mood, and boosts your desire to run hard. If you drink coffee on a daily basis you probably already know that jolt of java in the morning helps to get your brain and body moving.

Lastly, there is some evidence that drinking coffee may improve fat utilization in the body. For runners who are trying to lose weight, this benefit may be helpful.

Drawbacks

Like any workout supplement, using caffeine has some potential downsides you'll want to consider.

  • Increased sensation to urinate. Caffeine is a mild diuretic and may increase both the frequency and urgency of urination, especially for new users of caffeine (it does not cause dehydration). This can be problematic if you run in an area where bathrooms are not readily available. After habitual use, the effects are decreased.
  • GI issues. You may experience gastrointestinal issues when you drink coffee before running, especially if you add cow's milk (with lactose), sugar substitutes, or other ingredients that may not be tolerated on an individual basis. Additionally, caffeine has laxative potential, meaning that it can cause diarrhea in some people. Other effects may include gastroesophageal reflux disease, heartburn, and stomach pain.
  • Jitters. People who are sensitive to caffeine might develop headaches or "jitters" when they drink coffee. Either condition would make a run much less comfortable.

Even though caffeine has been studied extensively, many of the studies are small and limited in scope. Furthermore, not all of the findings have been positive. In fact, one study found that caffeinated coffee provided no benefit when compared to decaf coffee in runners competing in an 800-meter run. This may be related to the dosage, however, with an average intake of 91.3 mg and a range of 6 to 420 mg per day. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommended between 3mg and 9mg of caffeine for every kilogram of body weight.

Many studies investigating the benefits of caffeine on running performance are small in scope and not all studies have been consistent in their findings.

The bottom line? Caffeine may boost performance in some, but not all, runners. Since caffeine use and performance varies from person to person, serious athletes need to test its use before competing.

Caffeine Timing

If you're a morning runner, it is likely that you'll grab a cup of coffee before lacing up your shoes to hit the road. Some runners also consume caffeine during and after their run for additional benefits.

Before Running

Because of the many benefits that caffeine may provide during the run, caffeine is most commonly ingested before running because it is in your bloodstream within five to 15 minutes of consumption (levels peak between 40 and 80 minutes). Caffeine lasts in the bloodstream for three to five hours. Different studies recommended different amounts to consume.

In general, recommended caffeine doses range from three to 13 milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram of body weight. Most running sources cite 5 to 6mg/kg, considered a moderate dosage, as the recommended dose.

The best pre-race dose of caffeine for you might not be what works for another runner.

Experiment with doses starting at 2mg to 3mg per kilogram of body weight and increase if necessary. This dosage is recommended as it appears to be the least amount that provides benefits without negative side effects (although dosages of under 3 mg are the least studied).

Doses higher than 9mg per kilogram of body weight don't appear to provide additional athletic enhancement. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that toxic effects, such as seizures, may start with consumption greater than 1200mg of caffeine.

If you are a 150-pound runner (about 68 kilograms of body weight), your recommended dose would be roughly 340 mg to 409 mg of caffeine for moderate dosing. (If you have never used caffeine before, a recommended starting dose would be 136 mg to 204 mg.) One cup of coffee contains about 95 to 100 mg caffeine.

Most sources say that timing is not an issue—you can drink coffee an hour or more before the run and still enjoy the benefits of caffeine. The effects of caffeine last for three to five hours, so you don't have to try to drink it immediately before your run.

To find the best dose and timing for you, start at the lowest recommended amount and see how your body responds. Remember not to try anything new on race day. Experiment during training runs to find your sweet spot.

During a Run

Some runners drink coffee before a race, while others delay their caffeine intake until they're running so they can get a mid-race boost. You as a runner know yourself. It's best to trial different timing and dosing to determine what works best for you and optimizes your performance. You can consume caffeine on the run with caffeinated energy gel or chews (or other sports nutrition).

Check the nutrition facts on the packaging of your sports nutrition to see which ones contain caffeine. Many products contain multiple supplements such as amino acids, sodium, and some source of quick energy, such as fructose. The caffeine in energy gels is absorbed into the body very quickly, so you can use a caffeinated sports gel during a race without worrying about having to wait very long for its effects.

After Running

It might seem counterintuitive to consume coffee (or any caffeinated beverage) after a race, but drinking coffee after a run may provide benefits. In a small study of seven trained cyclists/triathletes, consuming caffeine along with carbohydrates after exhaustive exercise improved muscle recovery.

Additionally, the mental alertness benefits of coffee may have benefits for runners who train or race in the morning and then need to focus or perform on the job later in the day.

Myths About Coffee and Running

The most common myth about coffee and running is that consuming caffeine can replace smart training. While caffeine may enhance your performance in a race or decrease your perception of effort, it cannot substantially decrease your pace or make the run feel effortless.

Additionally, some runners feel that more caffeine is better. This is not always the case. Consuming too much caffeine on race day can cause shakiness and nervousness that may detract from the focus you need to perform. Dosage greater than 9 mg/kg of body weight doesn't provide added benefit, and consumption greater than 1200 mg may have toxic effects.

While coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) may provide some benefits, it is not a substitute for smart training. If you haven't put in the miles before a big race, drinking coffee is not likely to make a big difference.

Lastly, there are myths about coffee and dehydration. While caffeine does increase the need to urinate, it does not seem to increase the risk of dehydration. But this does not eliminate the need for runners to hydrate before and after a run. It simply means that drinking coffee isn't likely to cause dehydration.

Coffee Calories and Nutrition

The way you consume coffee can have an impact on your body weight and on your running performance. A single cup of black coffee provides almost zero calories. It also has virtually no micronutrients except for a small amount of sodium (5mg) and potassium (116mg).

However, what you add to your coffee can change the nutrition substantially. For example, if you add two tablespoons of cream to your coffee, you'll add over 100 calories and about 11 grams of saturated fat. Spoon some sugar into your coffee and you'll increase the calorie count by about 20 calories per spoonful.

When you consider the amount of coffee that you'd need to consume to meet the recommended guidelines, the number of calories in a pre-race dose could add up.

If possible, consume coffee black before your run. Eliminating full-fat dairy containing lactose will decrease your chances of stomach discomfort. Additionally, by reducing the fat and calorie content you'll also keep your calorie count and saturated fat intake lower.

A Word From Verywell

Don't ever experiment with coffee or caffeine before or during a race. Slowly incorporate 2mg to 3mg/kg of caffeine and increase as needed (without exceeding 9 mg/kg) to improve performance long-term while decreasing negative effects, such as the urge to urinate. You should first try it out during some of your long runs and hard workouts to make sure it doesn't make you too jittery or cause GI issues. You don't want to sabotage your race by taking too much caffeine.

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