A few weeks ago I ran the longest race I have ever undertaken, a 60km (37 mile) trail run around Surrey. What an experience! So much excitement, anticipation, nerves, doubts, a whole range of emotions. Weirdly, or perhaps not, going into the run I had no doubts whatsoever that I would not finish the race. Not a single doubt whether I would be able to run the 60km or not. I knew that I could do it, that now was my time to do it, that I would achieve my goal and enjoy every moment of the process.
Running training obviously played a huge part in my preparation, but the nutrition aspect was also a major factor in the success, or failure, of this challenge. When it comes to food and drink, running an ultra is not like running a 10k.
In a 10k there is no need to eat on the run, ensure you are carb loaded, consider replenishing salts, or worry about dehydration. In a 10k you just run, as hard as you can, for as long as your body will allow.
In a long distance run, be it a 20 mile training run, a marathon, or a 100 mile ultra race you need to fuel up during the run. It is just not possible to run for that many hours on a bowl of porridge. At least, not without feeling excessive fatigue and making the run harder than it needs to be.
My most happiest moment in the Fox Ultra came at the last aid station, at the 30 mile point, just when I was feeling weary and as if the run would never end. As I slowly ran up the sandy trail towards the aid station table I saw another runner grinning and waving a cup frantically at me. Slowly, it dawned on me what she was trying to tell me. Coffee! The aid station had coffee for the runners! Flash back to 3 hours or so previously when we had been chatting about how an espresso would go down a treat. We had joked about making a quick stop at a lovely cafe just off Ripley high street and swapped stories about being coffee snobs. Ok, so the aid station coffee was just a cheap instant coffee, not great tasting and highly processed, but at that point in time, after running for around 6 hours, it was heaven in a plastic cup! After a deep inhalation of the distinctive coffee smell and few swigs I was ready to get running again. Nothing I am sure to do with the caffeine as barely any would have entered my body quickly enough, a lot to do with the mental association of coffee and energy boost, and a bit to do with the endorphins and happiness and laughter from such a crazy shared experience, but mile 31 was our fastest mile of the second half. Ok, so there were no killer hills to contend with, but we were flying along at a great pace laughing about the coffee experience and have a wonderful time. The magic of coffee!
A few days after the race I was keen to learn about the benefits or detrimental effects of caffeine, and in particular coffee, during an endurance run. Is there any science to support reduced fatigue or improved performance? And what about the issue of GI distress, a common occurrence in endurance athletes, and an issue for some coffee drinkers.
In my research I came across a few studies on endurance training and caffeine, all of which gave positive results for improved speed and reduced fatigue, although it should be noted that the study groups were small and participants were well trained athletes. Could the same results be applied to recreational runners? One proven benefit of caffeine is its direct effect on the central nervous system, altering the body's perception of pain, fatigue and effort levels, thereby making a run feel easier. The body may be working hard and experiencing discomfort and fatigue but the brain is tricked into thinking it is not. Amazing! Research shows that runners experience the same performance benefits from caffeine whether they are habitual coffee drinkers or not. There are however effects to be aware of, which some people will experience to a greater degree than others, namely elevated pulse rate and blood pressure, though as the heart works super hard anyway when running, any extra elevation in heart rate from caffeine will not be noticed.
How much caffeine is of benefit? A more complex question to answer. Body size and weight, genetics and gender all play a part in how we metabolise caffeine and how much intake is helpful for improved running performance. The length of race and at what point during the event caffeine is taken are others factors to consider. For me, a few swigs of coffee was all I needed for a boost; had I drunk any more than that I suspect stomach issues may have come into play during the last hour or so.
All the research adds up to caffeine being a great aid during an endurance event, whether or not you are a habitual coffee drinker. Mind over matter, or proven physiological effect, it doesn't really matter. It worked for me!
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Helen Morton, registered Nutritional Therapist. sports nutritionist, runner, Level 2 Fitness Instructor and food lover, sharing latest nutrition research and recipes.