As a performance coach specializing in trail and ultra-distance running, I am frequently asked about the use of caffeine a supplement to performance. With almost every sports nutrition brand providing caffeinated options, from gels to chews to beverages, I believe it is important to address the question – to caffeine or not to caffeine? Sadly, as you will soon find out, whilst there are some good rules to abide by, everyone is different. Using caffeine requires you to understand the science, your own body’s response to this common stimulant, and then to deliberately practice and observe its effects during exercise.
Caffeine is a stimulant
Let us begin with the most important concept. Caffeine is a stimulant. It acts to give you a false sense of energy, helping to heighten alertness and enhance wakefulness. In trail running, these effects can help someone to feel more responsive to the challenges of the trail, overcome fatigue (both physical and mental), and to also mask pain (more on this soon). However, herein lies the caution. If caffeine is a stimulant and can help someone to feel like a relative of Superman, then it is likely that this individual is working at a heightened level of physical and mental exertion. Underlying this is still the same body requiring the same amount of energy, if not more, to maintain its level of performance. If you are someone who uses caffeine, then it is highly likely that you are chewing into energy reserves faster than you would in a non-caffeinated state. Unless you are ruthless about putting this energy back in whilst on your caffeine-high, then you can be digging your own energy hole that may be difficult, or near impossible, to return from.
Caffeine is a diuretic
The same concept holds true for the effect that caffeine has on our hydration. As caffeine is a mild diuretic, it can give an athlete the sensation of needing to stop behind a tree, all the while thinking,‘great, I must be hydrated’. If you are zinging along the trail on your caffeine high, it is also imperative to keep on top of your fluids, preferably using an electrolyte higher in sodium.
Caffeine has different effects on different people
I am a tea drinker and even a small influx of caffeine will hit me hard, so hard in fact that my mind begins to race and I begin to feel a little bit jittery. My husband on the other hand loves a coffee, or two, or three. Whilst I opt for the tea leaves, he will grind, filter and create an espresso with negligible effects on his physiology or psyche. Out on the trail, the enormous difference of caffeine’s effects on our bodies continues to be evident. For me, even a portion of a caffeinated gel is like putting a firecracker in a tin can. The nearly instantaneous pulse of caffeine resonates throughout my body, causing me to feel zingy, jittery and uncomfortable. However, for my husband, he will really, really notice the lack of caffeine in his system if we begin early in the morning or are running for extensively prolonged periods of time. For example, if he skips his morning coffee, or those later in the day, the lack of caffeine leaves his normally caffeinated body feeling lethargic and stagnant. Utilising a caffeinated gel during these lower periods makes a lot of sense, albeit carefully ensuring that enough energy is also replaced to combat its stimulating effects. This is imperative to avoid crashing and burning later.
Caffeine and women
Fascinatingly, studies are now coming to light about the role of caffeine on a woman’s body, and how the effect varies depending on her hormonal status. For example, information is coming to light to show that the metabolism of caffeine during the first two weeks of a woman’s cycle is similar to that of men, but then in the second two weeks women show higher peak levels following ingestion, meaning that the caffeine will stay in her body for longer. This is also true for many women using certain forms of birth control. I would recommend that if you are a woman and are sensitive to caffeine, begin to notice and document its effects on your body at different times of your menstrual cycle. You may observe that your sensitivity to this stimulant may go up and down with the changes in your hormonal levels, thus requiring you to adapt your approach during exercise.
Caffeine and stress
Some athletes are highly susceptible to pre-race exercise stress or anxiety. For these athletes, I would strongly recommend steering clear of caffeine prior-to, or in the early phases of a race as it has the potential to enhance the cortisol stress response. Too much stress too early on can lead to burning more calories than desired, leading to a potential deficit later in the event.
Caffeine for pain
Interestingly, one of the greatest benefits of caffeine during exercise is that is becomes a potent masker of pain. That is, during exercise, it can have an effect of similar proportions to that of taking two Panadol tablets. There have certainly been occasions when I have had to tap into this during the depths of a long, difficult ultra-distance run. For example, on one such adventure I had a sudden, sharp onset of ITB syndrome with symptoms of jabbing pain in the front of my patellar. No amount of hobbling helped and deep down I knew that this compensation would only make the problem worse. Within 10 minutes of consuming a caffeinated gel, I had not just climbed out of this hobbling hole, but the pain had completely disappeared! I believe that this was also due to my heightened ability to improve my motor patterning, once again tapping into the strength of my gluteal muscles that had become lazy and non-responsive due to mental and physical fatigue. Amazingly, I experienced no more knee pain for the remaining 6 hours of this long mission.
In summary, caffeine certainly does have a role during exercise. It can help us to feel alert, agile and responsive to the demands of the challenges we have set ourselves, and not to forget its effects on pain. However, it is imperative to remember that it is a stimulant. For these reasons, I would urge all athletes to develop insight into how it affects them on an individual level, and also to consider keeping it up your sleeve as a trump card for later in the race. This will help you to experience that sensation of finishing with fire, whilst also helping to prevent digging energy deficits due to overexertion too early in an event.
I am running along a wild trail in Japan, entering into the Zen state that occurs soon after the ‘I am getting a little tired’ point, and shortly before the second-wind gusts you back onto your feet. In this internal bubble, time loses all meaning, and thoughts come and go like the breeze that hits me each time I crest onto another jagged ridgeline. Sweat is dripping down my forehead, seeping down my neck, before finally making it into my undies. Moving along this trail, far from the wandering crowds, and well beyond reach of emails, phones and all that ‘life’ stuff, I think I am in heaven. And, from the depths of this meditative state, I feel completely connected to my rawest self.
This experience in Japan is my first multi-day, lightweight mission. All I am carrying on my back is a small five-liter running vest pack. It contains only the bare essentials – a change of undies, a singlet, shorts, thermal, rain jacket, toothbrush, electrolytes, sports gels, cash, phone and a few tea bags. (As I learnt last time I visited, even in Japan I can find myself in tea deficit mode. On that occasion, I had reached a teahouse surrounded by tea plantations only to find that they only served coffee!) On each day of this spontaneous adventure I am aiming to cover anywhere from 35 – 55km through relatively remote, mountainous terrain on the Kii Peninsula which lies to the south of the mega cities of Osaka and Kyoto. As I would later find out, I had been all too dismissive of the word ‘mountainous’, which in Japan really does mean huge, sharp climbs in excessive of 1000m, followed be slippery freefalls back down the other side, only to repeat again.
On rare occasions the trail dips into the valleys that gently cup small, remote villages where a rural life of rice paddies, tea plantations and persimmon trees adorn. Here, I am greeted to a hospitality unlike anywhere else in the world. Stooped women eagerly grasp my empty water bottle, or offer me some, ‘chocolate, just for you’when I step into their home, which also serves as a café. When the time comes to stiffly stand back up and bid farewell, she will stand at the hearth of her home, waving madly like I am her daughter. I feel so connected to them even though our homelands are waters apart, and our native tongues struggle to express our gratitude.
In this rural region of Japan there is also attention to detail simply everywhere I turn. Small rest stops enroute are cleaned to 5* hotel standards, with the toilet paper carefully folded into a ‘V’ shape to highlight just how carefully prepared it is for my sweaty bottom. And when I finally arrive weary, muddy and salt-crusted at my ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for the night, I am greeted by unphased, cheery smiles, along with a pair of slippers and a white fluffy towel. Later, as I soak in the healing onsens and revel in the warm fuzzy feeling of a day of adventuring, little do I know that my futon bed is being carefully prepared by Japanese pixies.
Prior to this personal four-day adventure, I was leading a group of trail runners on one of our Find Your Feet Trail Running Tours. Each day of the tour, we host a tradition of sharing our highlights of the day with one another. This is a beautiful insight into the small moments that can, at times, be life changing for our guests. It provides not only a connection with one another, but also allows our guests to connect with a side of themselves which may feel unfamiliar and nuanced. At the end of this particular trip, we also asked each guest to share the one element of Japan that they wished to return home with. It was, without a doubt, the most remarkable conversation as unanimously, collectively, the group’s highlight of the trip was the Japanese custom of generosity and compassion, given so freely and with no sense of entitlement in return. Yes, it is this missing sense of entitlement, replaced only by unwavering generosity and trust, that connects me to this unique country and continues to prod me in my heart me as a plod, huff and puff my way along the weaving trails.
Out here, on a trail to somewhere, I love to watch the way neighbors connect in the street, chatting gaily to one another. To marvel at the lack of fences and their community gardens. To watch them sweep, clean, and live alongside one another. Individual lives, connecting together and being enjoyed collectively. And yet beyond this camaraderie, there is another Japanese custom that profoundly strikes me – self-compassion!
In many of the small towns which provided my bed of the night, the onsens are also frequented by locals who would tug off their gumboots at the entrance, and pad their way down carefully cleaned corridors in a pair of slippers. Many of the women would be stooped from years of toiling in the rice paddies, tea plantations or vegetable allotments. From labour to self-love, the onsen is where they come to nurture, preen, show mindfulness, and leave renewed. When I step into this steamy environment at the end of the day, my dirty feet padding a contrasting pathway across pristine white tiles, I cannot help but observe the relaxed nature of the Japanese women sharing this space alongside one another… and me. We are all nude. We are all different, some with more curves here, and some with less there. Taller, shorter, rounder, smaller, it doesn’t appear to matter. These women will look at themselves in little stumpy mirrors whilst poised on small plastic stools. They appear to observe themselves with a peacefulness that could only come from a lack of self-judgement, and a lack of judgement of others.
Contrastingly, back home many of us are warriors in the bathroom. I, for one, am far too quick to judge and rush through a routine of in, out, dried, clothed and on my way again. It is about time… time… time… or lack thereof. But in Japan, there is always time. Somehow, the days feel spacious, the heart fuller, the body more capable of brimming with self-gratitude. And of course, connecting to both oneself and others.
My adventure has now passed and this morning I am back in the more concreted landscapes of Osaka, awaiting my flight home. I cannot help but pine for those hazy memories of steep mountains and unknown pathways still to come. So, in the shadows of dawn, I pull on my running shoes one last time and slip from the hotel, weaving my way out onto the foreshore overlooking the manmade island now forming the impressive Osaka Kansai International Airport. Rain clouds are boiling with potency around me, and as the sun begins to bead light onto the earthen walls where families and fisherman throw their fishing lines into the sea, a bold rainbow manifests. I pause briefly, revel in the fact that I have had this glorious experience, and continue onwards, never once occurring to me to share this moment with the unfamiliar faces around me. However, I am soon pulled from my inner glow by another jogger. He is waving madly at me and then madly at the sky, all the while hosting a broad, goofy smile. ‘Rainbow, rainbow!’He is calling to me, connecting with me, wanting me to see what he has seen. We pause together, two individuals connected by an appreciation for nature’s finery, each exchanging unfamiliar words of excitement before continuing along our solo pathways. Moments later, just as two nattering women in broad, floppy hats are wandering towards me, the rainbow has spread into a two-layered beauty with an arc from ocean to ocean. I wave madly at them, and then up at the sky. I know I am sporting a goofy smile but I cannot help it. They stop in their tracks, conversation now on pause, and look up. Then they are squealing, pointing, waving at all the other wanderers as they wander. We become bundled together, connected by an arc of colour, all pointing and cheering. ‘Rainbow! Rainbow!’
Had that first gentleman not taken that moment to connect with me, I would never have learnt that generosity can be as simple as sharing an arc of colour as it seeps across a sky. Had I not connected with those women in the onsens, I don’t think I would have ever fully understood the gift of self-compassion when I now turn on the taps in the quiet of the bathroom. We need connection, both to ourselves and to others. It makes the rainbows shine brighter, judgement to seep away and compassion to rise to the surface. It allows us to stand on a set of steps and wave goodbye to someone we do not know. And it gives a sense of having more time. More time to to greet a neighbor in the street. More time to share a random act of kindness, with no sense of entitlement in tow. More time and excitement to explore wilder trails, knowing that you will be taken care of, both by yourself and by others.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
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