March 29, 2009
Run faster on coffee
Just a small cup is enough to better your performance by 5 per cent and it works for all sports, say researchers
New York - Mr Weldon Johnson first tried caffeine as a performance enhancer in 1998. He was not a coffee drinker but had heard it could make him run faster. So he went to a convenience store before a race and drank a cup of coffee.
For the first time in his life, he ran 10km in under 30 minutes.
'I remember being really wired before the race,' he said. 'My body was shaking.'
From then on, he was a convert.
Mr Johnson, a founder of LetsRun.com, would avoid caffeine, even in soft drinks, for a few weeks before he competed in a race, wanting to have the full stimulant effect.
'It might have been a huge placebo effect but I swore by it,' he said.
Or maybe, it was not a placebo effect.
Caffeine, it turns out, actually works. And it is legal, one of the few performance enhancers that is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Exercise physiologists have studied caffeine's effects: Does it help sprinters? Cyclists? Swimmers? Athletes whose sports involve stopping and starting such as tennis players? The answers are yes and yes and yes and yes.
From as long ago as 1978, researchers have been publishing caffeine studies. And they concluded that it actually does improve performance. In fact, some experts, such as Dr Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada, are just incredulous.
'There is so much data on this that it is unbelievable,' he says. 'It is just unequivocal that caffeine improves performance. It has been shown in well-respected labs in multiple places around the world.'
The only new questions are how it exerts its effects and how little caffeine is needed to get an effect.
For many years, researchers thought the sole reason people could exercise harder and longer after using caffeine was that the compound helped muscles use fat as a fuel, sparing the glycogen stored in muscles and increasing endurance.
But there were several hints that something else was going on. For example, caffeine improved performance even in short intense bursts of exercise when endurance was not an issue.
Now, Dr Tarnopolsky and others report that it increases the power output of muscles by releasing calcium that is stored in muscle.
The effect enables athletes to keep going longer or to go faster in the same length of time. Caffeine also affects the brain's sensation of exhaustion, the feeling that it is time to stop, that you cannot go on any more.
The performance improvement in controlled laboratory settings can be 20 to 25 per cent, Dr Tarnopolsky says. But in the real world, the improvement may average about 5 per cent, still significant if you want to get your best time or even win a race.
Ms Louise Burke, head of sports nutrition department of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, reports that athletes get the full caffeine effect with as little as 1mg of caffeine per kg of body weight. So an 80kg man could drink one small cup of coffee or two cans of Coke to enjoy a lift.
And even if you are a regular coffee drinker, if you have a cuppa before a race, you will do better, Dr Tarnopolsky says.
He puts the research to use when he trains and competes. He is an elite triathlete, ski orienteer and trail runner. Besides, he loves coffee: 'I love the smell. I love the taste. It is heaven.'
New York Times