Day #39: Running With Coffee

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Complete this sentence: There are two types of distance runners: those who… and those who…

One might come up with any number of categories for dispute – toe vs. heel strikers; bagel eaters vs. donut fiends; listeners of mp3′s on the run vs. listeners of nature; barefoot, bearded bandits vs. clean cut, black-sock adorned white-collars; and the list is limitless.

One of my favorite distinctions among runners is that of coffee lovers vs. coffee snubbers. This is the sometimes not so subtle battle between those who are daily wooed by the black caffeinated java at first light, amidst pre-race psych-up and in all moments in between and those true believers who know that coffee is just plain ‘poison.’ I have been wondering if this java controversy can tell us even more than the surface conclusions do about the substance of the members of these two camps.

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Is it possible that the greats: Gebresselasie, Rodgers, Keflizighi, Waitz, Budd, Viren and de Costella (to name just a few of my favorites) fall consistently towards or away from the tar-ry draught? Does quaffing caffeine assure world records or does it rather consign its addicts to also-rans? Inquiring minds – especially my father and I (who continually email each other with the latest scientific findings on this subject) – want to know.

So I did a little research. And it turns out that I am not at all alone in my wonderings. Are you surprised, for example, that there is a site called http://www.giveupcoffee.com? What dark sins led to this domain claim? Below are some words of wisdom gleaned from this dogmatic website:

“It is a bit tough giving up coffee when you run long distances. But for me, the tiredness only lasts a couple of days. Here is my experience of what happens, I have given up a few times. The first thing is, I catch up on lost sleep! Next I have minor cold symptoms, which are actually my sinuses coming good. And soon, as the energy returns, I discover that I can run quickly at the start of races, because my energy reserves are not being compromised by the effect coffee has when it releases fats in preference to glycogen at the start of exercise. Lastly, I should find that when before a marathon or similar endurance race I do allow myself one rare cup of coffee, drinking it for its fat-releasing and therefore energy-conserving effect will be enhanced simply as a result of my not being accustomed to it.” -geoffmoore.blogspot.com as quoted by giveupcoffee.com

Not sure I am ready to jump on board the give up coffee bandwagon after that essay… On this same website, here are some telling headlines: “How Coffee Makes You Fat and Wrinkled,” “Does Coffee Contain Fungus?” and “How Giving Up Coffee Can Make You a Millionaire.” I like the sound of that last article – and agree that my Starbucks problem is costing me, but I am still not punching my card. Not yet…

But back to running. Who is drinking what? And to what effect?

This 2009 Runners World Article is a bit more to my taste: “Good Buzz: No More Coffee Guilt — Caffeine Boosts Leg and Brain Power.” Another Runners World article similarly exhorts distance runners to drink copiously: “Seven Reasons to Drink Coffee.” In fact, despite my – okay, we’ll call it a relationship – with coffee, I was surprised at all of the articles and data I found which support the positive effects of caffeine on distance runners’ performance:

“Studies about coffee can be a tricky thing. It seems like one week scientists find that coffee is bad for us, the next week they announce it provides untold benefits. When it comes to coffee’s star ingredient, caffeine, the results are much clearer in relation to athletes: Caffeine can improve performance. It is, in fact, one of the few legal performance enhancers in the world. In study after study, athletes who consumed caffeine before a race or event were able to go faster, last longer and recover more quickly than athletes who didn’t have the extra boost. In the studies, performance improves by 20 to 25 percent, though in real-world scenarios the effect might be a little less

Caffeine helps runners in several ways. For one, researchers have found that caffeine causes muscles to use fat as fuel, rather than glycogen stored in the muscles, which increases stamina. Caffeine also amps up muscles by releasing calcium stored within, which aids speed and endurance. And it affects how hard you think you’re working, so that you can run longer and harder without feeling exhausted.” – howstuffworks.com

It was only in researching the likes of Haile Gebresselasie that I turned up some questionable data from reliable sources. Check out, for example, this screenshot of a critical YouTube video which shows what coffee has done for the multi-gold Olympian:

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In the end, I have discovered this: coffee drinkers tend to be much more territorial about protecting their caffeine habits than do non-drinkers to be fanatic in preaching their prohibition message. The controversy stirs up more humor than fact, I have found, and my recommendation about caffeine (from the authoritative position of a coffee addict) is that you take it or leave it, but don’t worry too much about the negative impacts of the elixir. Maybe Ryan Hall says it best in this little video snippet when he reminds us to make race morning ritualistic so that every variable has been tried over and over before.

If you drink caffeine before a race and have had success doing so, carry on. As Joan Benoit Samuelson once said:

“Years ago, women sat in kitchens drinking coffee and discussing life. Today they cover the same topics while they run.”

Maybe we should get out there and start today’s run — and stop our yapping….

cartoon credits: cartoons found at Geoff Moore’s School of Running website.