- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

Caffeine is nearly as abundant as oxygen. Check the label on just about anything you consume and there is some level of caffeine.

You obviously will find it in caffeinated coffees, teas and most soft drinks, also in chocolate products and in many over-the-counter cough/cold and pain-relieving medications, herbal/nutritional supplements, sports/energy drinks and gels.

Many people even consider caffeine a drug because of its addictive properties.

Funny enough, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) did a major reversal and decided in September to remove caffeine from the list of banned/restricted substances for international sports.

Runners have been relying on caffeine for years to gain an extra edge on the competition. But study after study on the athletic benefits of caffeine have been anything but conclusive.

Can caffeine help you race better? Pete Pfitzinger, an exercise physiologist and two-time Olympic distance runner, takes on that question in the current issue of Running Times, saying “several hundred studies have been conducted on the effects of caffeine on sports performance, and the answer is: probably. Studies with runners and cyclists have shown that caffeine can improve performance.”

Translated into time, he says caffeine can slice 20 to 50 seconds from your 10K time and 90 seconds to four minutes off your marathon time. However, he notes that “hardly any studies have investigated the effects of caffeine on race performance, so we do not really know if it can help improve your next 10K or marathon.”

The reason: Although caffeine increases adrenaline levels, those levels already are stimulated by the excitement of the race.

WADA said its change of heart was intended to reflect the changing times and to prevent athletes who took common cold remedies or drank cola or coffee from getting suspended or disgraced. Most notably, American sprinter Inger Miller lost her bronze medal in the 60 meters at the 1999 world indoor championships after a positive caffeine test.

Miller admitted having some coffee that day but also said she was given several Cokes to drink after her competition because Coca-Cola was an event sponsor.

Though high levels of caffeine are thought to improve endurance performance, the July 1999 Current Comment on “Caffeine and Exercise Performance” from the American College of Sports Medicine concluded “caffeine ingestion does not appear to improve sprint performance.”

Technically, caffeine has never been banned; it has been excessive levels of caffeine that have led to disqualification. The International Olympic Committee has allowed caffeine in a post-race urine sample in amounts up to 12 micrograms per 100 milliliters of urine.

It takes five to six strong cups of brewed coffee in the hour or two before a doping test to produce those numbers.

So how can runners maximize their benefit from caffeine?

“If you are a big coffee drinker, should you stop coffee for a few days before a major competition, then start again on the day of the event in order to realize a big improvement of performance?” asks doctors Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder and Wilkie Wilson in their study, “PUMPED,” which Ross Dunton reproduced in his e-mail newsletter “Masters Track & Field News.”

“Most coffee drinkers experience a headachy, tired feeling if they skip their morning coffee. This is a kind of withdrawal syndrome.

“Of course, if you feel lousy because you aren’t getting coffee for a few days, a big jolt of caffeine on the day of competition is going to feel great. However, it’s not clear that your performance would be any better than if you had just kept drinking coffee all along and had your normal cup of Joe on that day. In short, we don’t really know if a brief withdrawal period really increases the performance-enhancing effects of caffeine.”


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