WELDON JOHNSON first tried caffeine as a performance enhancer in 1998. He was not a coffee drinker but had heard that caffeine 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 10 kilometers in less than 30 minutes.
“I remember being really wired before the race,” he said in an e-mail message. “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 may have been a huge placebo effect, but I swore by it,” Mr. Johnson said. “Having a cup of coffee exactly one hour before the race was part of my routine.”
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.
“But how does caffeine work, mighty Pejman,” I hear you ask. Well, behold:
Starting as long ago as 1978, researchers have been publishing caffeine studies. And in study after study, they concluded that caffeine actually does improve performance. In fact, some experts, like Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada, are just incredulous that anyone could even ask if caffeine has a performance effect.
“There is so much data on this that it’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s just unequivocal that caffeine improves performance. It’s been shown in well-respected labs in multiple places around the world.”
The only new questions were 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 is not an issue.
Now, Dr. Tarnopolsky and others report that caffeine increases the power output of muscles by releasing calcium that is stored in muscle. The effect can enable athletes to keep going longer or to go faster in the same length of time. Caffeine also affects the brain’s sensation of exhaustion, that feeling that it’s time to stop, you can’t go on any more. That may be one way it improves endurance, Dr. Tarnopolsky said.
The performance improvement in controlled laboratory settings can be 20 to 25 percent, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. But in the real world, including all comers, the improvement may average about 5 percent, still significant if you want to get your best time or even win a race.
Weirdly enough, well before having seen this story, I had myself a big cup of strong tea before going to exercise for an hour on the elliptical machine. I did 60 minutes, went nearly three and a half miles, burned over 460 calories, and felt great at the end. Sure, I was a little winded, but that was because I was pushing myself ridiculously at the end. And I recovered from being winded quite quickly. While exercising, I reflected on how energetic I felt and how the workout was refreshing me, rather than tiring me out. I thought that this was solely attributable to the fact that I had myself a good night’s sleep, but apparently, the tea had an effect on me as well.
So, the results appear to be in. In addition to all of its other miraculous properties, caffeine gives you an awesome workout and helps you get in shape. As of this writing, noted caffeine addict Jacob Levy has nary a post on this latest reason for caffeine addicts to rejoice. Wait until I message him on Facebook and alert him to this spectacular news.