How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running – Women's Running UK

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Author: Chris Macdonald

Read Time:   |  July 17, 2017

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Next time you’re heading off to a race, the most important factor in your experience might not be the way you tie your laces or how you warm up, but whether or not you choose to neck a cup of coffee before you set off.

Although we’re a nation of caffeine addicts – Brits consume over 70 million cups of coffee every day, according to the British Coffee Association ( – it’s still got something of a reputation as an unhealthy choice, being charged with causing everything from heart palpitations to sleeplessness and dehydration. However, as a runner, the last thing you should consider is a caffeine detox as studies have repeatedly shown it can make you a faster, more effortless runner.

Are there any undesirable side effects?

Before we try to convince you that caffeine is a valuable part of your pre-run prep, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. It’s true that consuming too much caffeine can have some unwanted side effects, but only in huge doses, says Professor Mike Gleeson, Professor of Exercise Biochemistry at Loughborough University. “You can get symptoms of palpitations and a bit of tremor and things like that with excessive doses of caffeine, but if you’re taking caffeine as part of foods or drinks like coffee then it’s very unlikely you’re going to get that.” In fact, says Gleeson, you’d have to be consuming more than five strong cups of coffee every day to start experiencing problems, or volumes of eight or nine milligrams per kilogram of body weight (see table below for average caffeine contents of different drinks)


Will using caffeine in my training affect my sleep?

Tolerance of caffeine can vary which is in part due to the bodies ability to detoxify it. Caffeine has a prolonged half-life of five to six hours, so in terms of sleeping you may wish to stop consumption mid to late afternoon. Late training sessions using caffeine could potentially affect sleep and reduce optimal rest and recovery.

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Will caffeine dehydrate me?

You’ll often be told to avoid caffeinated drinks before a race if you’re trying to stay hydrated, but again Gleeson says you’d have to work hard for your cuppa to have a negative effect. “Drinking coffee with normal caffeine content has been shown to contribute to improving hydration status,” says Gleeson, “so when you drink coffee, the amount of fluid you’re drinking exceeds the amount that you urinate over the next few hours. It’s not as good as water – but really nothing is.”

Pregnant women are advised to limit their intake to 200mg per day, but even this allows you a couple of cups of normal strength coffee, which could help combat fatigue to help you get out running or walking and keep your fitness levels up.

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Brain training

Although it’s long been known that caffeine could help athletes in almost any endurance sport – and by ‘endurance’ we mean anything over a few minutes – theories have changed as to why. “It’s now recognised that the major performance enhancing effect of caffeine is the effect it’s having on the brain,” says Professor Gleeson. “It’s acting through antagonism of adenosine on its receptors, it means you get some changes in neurotransmitters in the brain, principally increases in dopamine levels and reduction of the actions of the adenosine.” Adenosine has a calming effect, which caffeine helps suppress by stopping its interaction with adenosine receptors. “The overall effects are to increase concentration, make you more alert, give you a bit of a buzz, and reduce your perception of pain and effort,” says Gleeson. In fact, perfect for anyone about to head out for a run!

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Fat Burn


For endurance runners however one of the most important benefits is that caffeine increases the body’s use of fat as an energy source. Studies have shown that caffeine results in an increase in free flowing fatty acids and glycerol in the blood stream. This means when your glycogen levels begin to fall your body can still perform at your optimum. The stimulation of endorphins may also reduce your perception of effort making your run feel easier. One study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism showed cyclists using a caffeinated sports drink not only completed more exercise than cyclist’s drinking water or a sports drink but reported a lower level of effort too.

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running


Caffeine may also be helpful post exercise. When combined with carbohydrates researchers found restored glycogen levels were 66 per cent higher after four hours post exercise than those using just a carbohydrate based drink. In addition, drinking coffee has been shown to reduce levels of inflammatory markers. So including a shot of expresso in your post workout shake may actually improve recovery.

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

How much is caffine should I consume to see results?

So how do you make the most of this magic ingredient in your daily drinks? The safest dose of caffeine for professional athletes is considered to be 2-5mg per kg body weight. This means that urine caffeine concentrations fall below the doping limit of the International Olympic Committee. For a nine stone runner (57kg) this would be a maximum of 285mg caffeine – around two and a half cups of instant coffee. If you’re normally a tea drinker, then switching to coffee on race day will give you a much stronger effect, as tea contains much less caffeine per cup.

If you consider yourself a caffeine addict, you may want to try this: in the week leading up to a big race, gradually reduce your intake – say from three cups a day, to two, then one, then a day or two without. When you have your usual coffee on race-day morning you should experience a stronger effect, boosting your run. For best results, have your caffeine 30-60 minutes before you race, and on longer events such as half-marathons or marathons, consider a second dose – try a caffeinated gel or sports drink – half way round to pep you up.

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Is more better?

What is particularly interesting is that taking a higher dose of caffeine does not necessarily lead to any further improvement in performance. In other words the effect is not dose dependent. At high doses many people actually experience a range of side effects, which may adversely affect health and performance.

Decipher your dose

Your quick guide to how much caffeine is in your favourite wake-up drink

Beverage or Food Serving Size fl oz (mL) Caffeine Content
Cola beverages 12 (360 mL) 35–55
Tea, brewed 8 (240 mL) 40–60
Tea, green 8 (240 mL) 15
Hot cocoa 8 (240 mL) 15
Coffee, drip 8 (240 mL) 115–175
Coffee, brewed 8 (240 mL) 80-135
Coffee, instant 8 (240 mL) 65-100
Coffee, espresso 2 (60 mL) 100
Energy drinks 8 (240 mL) 80-300
Energy Gels 1 packet 25-60

How Caffeine Can Improve Your Running

Chris Macdonald

Editor-at-Large, Women's Running

Meet the team

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