Triathlon training is about hard work plus a continual search for the “edge” , where you can get an advantage on our competitors.
That extra exercise we can do or that little something we can take that will help us keep going when others give up or will give us that little burst of power to sprint ahead when it counts.
It is common knowledge that elite athletes in Kona take on caffeine. Many take 50mg before the race, then a caffeine shot every hour, saying it is critical to top performance.
But what are the benefits of caffeine in triathlon training- is it just a myth?
Does it enhance triathlon training and performance?
Or does it decrease performance and dehydrate us?
Is it even legal in elite racing?
Until 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee considered 12 micrograms per millilitre in urine to be the maximum legal concentration. But they dropped caffeine from their list of prohibited substances in 2004 because caffeine is so widely used that setting a threshold might lead athletes to be penalized for what others would consider normal caffeine consumption.
There is no maximum legal caffeine limit for age-group triathletes.
However it still is a drug- so it is best to find out what is the minimum effective dose to enhance performance without getting side effects or overdoing it.
What are the side effects?
Excessive caffeine intake may cause increased heart rate, tremors, and stomach upset. Too much can also cause insomnia and irritability. Most of us have felt these effects after pulling an all nighter before an exam or a deadline.
One of the biggest fears in using caffeine for triathlon training is the increased risk of dehydration due to the diuretic effect and therefore possible dehydration issues.
However in a recent scientific review, researchers from the University of Connecticut found that, contrary to popular beliefs, caffeine consumption does not result in (1) water-electrolyte imbalances (2) hyperthermia or (3) reduced exercise-heat tolerance.
Most studies report that a runner can safely have up to 550 milligrams of caffeine (or about five cups of coffee) without affecting hydration levels.
In moderation caffeine does not cause any adverse health effects.
However Steve Magness, an exercise scientist and former Oregon Project coach, found that pre-exercise coffee addiction may enable a state of chronic fatigue.
Loughborough University researchers in the UK also found out in a 2010 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports, that antigen-stimulated T-cells are wiped out and the immune system takes a considerable hit with too much coffee.
So what should we do?
Magness suggests stop drinking regular coffee so that the one-cup you drink on race day gives you a powerful kick without any damage to your health.
Not everyone agrees though.
How many triathletes are “on caffeine”?
As we know most of the elites do supplement their triathlon training with caffeine- not necessarily all year but certainly on race day. I am also amazed when I look at the Twitter profiles of most triathletes and runners, they specifically add in their profile- “coffee addict”!
Almost like they go hand in hand.
Using caffeine strategically can be one of the most effective performance enhancers you can use to help your triathlon training or running performance.
Caffeine is actually one of the most widely researched areas of sports performance, perhaps because so many athletes rely on it for its potential performance enhancing benefits.
Recent studies show that more than two-thirds of Olympic athletes use caffeine to increase their performance.
Murray Carpenter’s excellent book, Caffeinated, describes Matthew Ganio’s research. He is an exercise physiologist at the University of Arkansas Department of Health, Human Performance, and Recreation, In 2009, he and his colleagues published a systematic review of 21 studies on caffeine in timed performance ranging from 15 minutes to 2 hour tests of cycling, running, rowing and cross country skiing.
Ganio found consistent and substantial improvements in performance –as much as 3 percent.
So in an Ironman triathlon, a 3 percent improvement would mean an 18-minute boost in a 10-hour race.
Eighteen minutes is all that separates the top eight finishers in both the men’s and women’s pro races at Kona most years.
If your event is running 10K in 40 minutes without caffeine, you could shave off 72 seconds with caffeine.
If your event is cycling 1 hour time trial, you could finish 1minute and half quicker.
These results are extremely significant!
So, what are the other major benefits for triathlon training and performance?
Caffeine is rapidly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and is a mild stimulant that affects multiple organ systems. There are many known benefits and it is up to you to see if you believe they outweigh the risks.
1) Increase fat metabolism
Caffeine is known to enhance the body’s use of fat as a fuel source, thereby conserving glycogen. In triathlon training and racing, the conservation of glycogen is critical to performance over the last 10km of the race.
Caffeine increases the number of fatty acids in the blood stream, which increases the speed at which your body can covert fat to usable energy.
2) Reduce perceived exertion
Caffeine has been shown to reduce an athlete’s perception of effort. So for example a 6-minute mile will feel more like 7-minute mile. Simply speaking, it makes running/cycling/swimming fast feel easier.
Caffeine also increases the concentration of endorphins in the brain-the hormones that give you the runner’s high.
A recent study showed that swimmers were faster after 6mg/kg body weight caffeine administered in a fruit juice drink two- to five hours before the swim and reported lower perceived exertion.
Another one found that cyclists’ time to exhaustion was nearly 15 minutes longer while caffeinated with 330mg caffeine one hour before exercise.
3) Improved mental alertness and state of mind
Research shows that caffeine boosts your mental alertness, improves your mood, and boosts your desire to run hard.
This is a great benefit for triathlon training on those mornings when you’re facing a tough speed workout and you just don’t want to get out the door, or if you’re an evening runner who needs a mental boost after a long day at work.
4) Increases sprint speed and power
Caffeine also enhances reaction time and improves neuromuscular coordination (how fast your brain can send a signal to your muscles to contract and relax). While this is great for 200-meter sprinters, it can also be beneficial to long distance athletes.
Improved neuromuscular coordination allows your leg muscles to fire faster and more forcefully, which means you’ll be more efficient, i.e. you can run faster with less effort.
5) Caffeine and the heat
Another recent study looked at the effect of consuming a caffeinated sports drink on performance in a warm environment. Cyclists who ingested caffeine completed 15 to 23 percent more work in hot weather than cyclists who used either water or a traditional sports beverage.
Again, the cyclists who used caffeine had a lower level of perceived exertion.
6) Improved recovery
Caffeine has been shown to enhance recovery when used in conjunction with carbohydrates. Researchers have found that having a drink with caffeine rebuilds glycogen stores 66 percent more than a drink with just carbohydrates.
This is powerful information.
How much do I need to be effective in triathlon training?
3 to 6mg/kg body weight is recommended for endurance exercise (and more is not necessarily better — benefits do not rise with higher dosages).
So, as an example a 150lb runner (68 kilograms) would supplement with 340 milligrams of caffeine – about 16-17oz of drip brewed coffee.
Most health organizations recommend no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per dose.
This is important- I will say it again- MORE IS NOT BETTER!
Many triathletes are Type A personalities. We are driven to succeed. If someone tells us to do 30-minute run, we will do a 45-minute run to get ahead of our competition and improve quicker.
If someone tells us to do a 2-minute plank- we will do a 4-minute plank and so on…. (or is that just me??) :)
Remember caffeine is a drug. It can be addictive and there are side effects as we have discussed already like jitters, increased heart rate, upset stomach and possible lowered immunity.
Researchers at Australia’s Griffith University recently made an effort to pin down this optimal number.
They sought to determine whether a dose of 3 mg/kg would yield less performance benefit than 6 mg/kg or just as much.
Sixteen well-trained male cyclists participated in the study. Each of them performed a time trial on a stationary bike that took a little less than an hour to complete in the average case.
The results showed the 3mg does and 6mg dose produced the same advantage over a placebo but the 6mg produced no more advantage over the 3mg dose.
More is not better!
Matthew Ganio agrees with 3-6mg optimal dose. That is a lot of caffeine. An 80-kilo (176-pound) athlete taking six milligrams per kilogram would need 480 milligrams of caffeine(as the upper threshold).
480 milligrams would be six 8-ounce Red Bulls, two and a half NoDoz tablets, or two Extra Strength 5-hour Energy shots.
A more moderate dose for a smaller athlete, say, a 65-kilo (143-pound) athlete taking three milligrams per kilo, is still an impressive amount of caffeine: equal to one NoDoz tablet, one 5-hour Energy shot, or two and a half Red Bulls. Even this amount of caffeine is difficult to obtain using caffeinated sodas like Coca-Cola. A 65-kilo athlete would need to drink nearly six cans of Coke at once to get a caffeine dose of three milligrams per kilogram.
Where can I find it?
While coffee is the most common source of caffeine, many runners can find coffee to be hard on the stomach. You can experiment instead with caffeine-laced gels, blocks, and beans for a mid-run pick me up.
Because there are many levels of caffeine in these products, always be careful to check the label to see how much it contains.
In general, if a product contains caffeine, it likely offers somewhere between 25-100mg per serving.
Athletes who don’t often use caffeine but want to try out a mid-run fuel with some kick would do well to start with a conservative 25mg dose and see how they respond.
What about timing?
Caffeine is absorbed quickly and lasts for hours at a time, so timing isn’t critical. You can ingest caffeine immediately before and during your races without worrying about a delay in the effects.
Specific caffeine supplementation for performance should only be used during races. If you’re a routine coffee drinker and waking up every morning to your coffee, that’s fine.
But do not add specific supplementation for every training session.
Workouts are not races. For the most part they are sub maximal efforts.
Never do anything for the first time in a race. Make sure as part of you triathlon training you test and measure how much caffeine you use and what works best for you.
Of course, practice with it before hand. You do need to experiment with the dosage that suits you and the timing. Make sure you do not get jittery or upset stomach. If you are not a coffee drinker- start on a very low dose and see how you go.
Should I abstain before a big race?
I am still talking about caffeine here!
The answer to this question is no. Research has shown that runners receive the same performance boost from caffeine whether they are habitual coffee drinkers or they drink only the occasional cup of tea.
So should I or shouldn’t I?
There seems no doubt in the research about the performance enhancing benefits of caffeine. However the dose required to be effective is fairly small. Anymore than this does not magnify the advantage.
If you are a non coffee drinker, I would not rush to take it up. But I would tend to experiment in a long session, whether a bar or gel containing caffeine did give you a noticeable or measurable pick up or a feeling of reduction in perceived exertion.
If you are a regular coffee drinker- I would not rush to give it up completely. Moderate intake seems fine. However if you are on 10 cups a day, I would suggest this is not ideal.
For me I have one cup of coffee in the morning, which I simply adore. I do not use any more caffeine in ordinary triathlon training sessions.
If I do a race of any length I will have another coffee before the race to give me an extra kick. If I am competing in a very long event I will ensure I bring some gels or bloks containing caffeine- in case I need it.
For you it will be different. As you could see from the research there is no one right answer You need to experiment and see what works for you.
Let me know in the comments what your experience is
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