Caffeine for Endurance Athletes and Ultrarunners

September 16, 2022

International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance

How much benefit do we get from caffeine?
One of the great things about caffeine supplementation in sport is that the benefits apply across a wide range of endurance sports and athletes. Cyclists, runners, and triathletes all enjoy performance benefits from caffeine. They also do so at a variety of intensity domains, from short time trials to longer time-to-exhaustion tests and interval protocols alike. Additionally, caffeine’s ergogenic effects seem to know no boundaries of age, sex, or aerobic prowess (VO2max).

On average, endurance athletes enjoy about a 2-4% performance improvement, depending on the type of test and with moderate doses of caffeine (more on that below). This not only means that you can race faster, but also that you can maintain higher intensities for longer during workouts, potentially leading to bigger adaptations.

Caffeine Dose and Timing

As a byproduct of the many research studies performed on caffeine, we know a lot about how different dosages affect performance. As it turns out, there is a sweet spot between 3-6 mg/kg. Less than that and the ergogenic benefits are not as robust. Consume more than that range and there are no additional benefits. Easy math will tell you how many milligrams the optimal dose will be for your body mass, but it’s a more difficult proposition to determine how much caffeine is in your coffee (if that is your chosen source of caffeine). We’ve known for several years now that the caffeine content even in the same beverage from a different store can vary as much as nine-fold (for purposes of simplicity, I am going to use caffeine equivalents of 95 mg of caffeine for an 8-ounce cup of coffee and 64 mg of caffeine for a shot of espresso in this article).

Using myself as a 75 kg example, this would mean consuming anywhere between 2.5 and 5 cups of coffee or a similar amount from sports nutrition products to reap the benefits.

In terms of timing, things get a bit trickier depending on the exact situation you are in. Most research studies use a standardized consumption window of one hour before exercise in an attempt to time the effort to coincide with peak plasma caffeine concentrations (which happens anywhere from 30-120 minutes depending on the person). This timeframe works fine if you are doing a short workout or sipping on some espresso before your morning intervals. In this situation, you can have your dose of caffeine, then get your gear ready, head out the door, warm-up, and have your caffeine pump primed to hit this window optimally. But for ultramarathon athletes that routinely go on runs lasting longer than a few hours, I recommend waiting until the second half of the run to start consuming caffeine and stop the caffeine consumption at least one hour before the end of the run. Caffeine has been demonstrated to have particularly beneficial effects for athletes under fatigue and engrossed in long-duration exercise.

Another practical issue in regard to timing is when you consume caffeine in relation to your bedtime. If you generally run in the evening or afternoon, any workout benefits achieved from caffeine consumption can easily be erased by a night of restless and or reduced sleep. Best skip a pre-workout shot of espresso or caffeinated gel in these situations.

Interindividual variability

Despite some of these universal recommendations, like any nutritional intervention, there are still athletes who don’t respond well to caffeine. Some research has pointed out that so-called genetic ‘slow metabolizers’ could be poor candidates for caffeine interventions. While some studies show that caffeine impairs performance in slow metabolizers, others show no difference or even the exact opposite, that caffeine’s benefits only show up in people who are slow metabolizers.

Caffeine abstinence

Since caffeine’s legislation by WADA, much has been made about the need (or lack thereof) to abstain from the drug in the days leading up to the race in order to maximize benefits. Race week coffee abstention, which left many endurance athletes irritable, grumpy, and downright miserable to be around, has fortunately been found to be unnecessary and even problematic. While many athletes still adhere to this old adage in an effort to feel ‘race-ready’, there’s really no need to. Benefits are maintained regardless of if you continue to consume caffeine or not in the days leading up to an event. Given the potential and well documented side effects of caffeine withdrawal, feel free to keep your normal caffeine and coffee routine leading up to a race.

Caffeine and alertness

One of caffeine’s most potent benefits relates to alertness and cognition in sleep-deprived states. If you have even done an overnight ultra or 200 miler, you have had the experience of not being able to perform simple tasks after a night of no sleep. Fortunately, our military has had a long and storied history of subjecting soldiers to sleep-deprived training scenarios and then introducing interventions to help them perform better on the field of battle. As it turns out, caffeine is great in these scenarios; soldiers show improved decision making, marksmanship, and reaction time. The extrapolation of this research for ultrarunners is that if you have an overnight ultra, caffeine should certainly be a part of your race plan. However, caution should be used, as too much caffeine too early can cause adverse side effects.

Abstract taken from Jason Klopp, CTS

Stuart has competed in triathlons from Sprint to Ironman distance. As a qualified Triathlon Australia, Australian Athletics Run Coach, and a certified Ironman coach, he is aware of the importance of balancing training with lifestyle, thus complementing other important aspects of an athlete’s life (family, work, study commitments, etc.).

Contact Stuart at



#readytotri_bne #retreatcafe #redcliffecycles #maowconsulting #monrofamilybowen #infinitnutritionoz #inspireathletic #burpengarydental #triathloncoach #runcoach #personaltrainer #ironmanu  #ironmancoach #coachme #tricoach #triathlon #swimbikerun #ironman #triathlete #running #triathlontraining #run #cycling #bike #swim #ironmantri #training #swimming #fitness #anythingispossible

Start Your Triathlon Coaching Journey Today

If you’re ready to take your training to the next level with dedicated triathlon coaches who want to see you succeed in your chosen event, get in touch with ReadyToTri. With over 12 years experience as athletes ourselves, and 5 years helping athletes prepare for their triathlon, we’re the support system you need to reach the next level.

To get started with a top-class triathlon coach in Brisbane or beyond, contact ReadyToTri today.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Helping people compete in triathlons and running events so
they can become confident, healthy, fit, and a role model.

© 2022 ReadyToTri | All Rights Reserved.

Developed by Rise SEO - Web Design & SEO Brisbane