A common question for runners is “should I drink coffee before running?“.
It’s undeniable that coffee, and specifically the caffeine it contains, can provide a performance-enhancing boost. Athletes across the world are aware of this, and it’s backed up by hundreds of studies.
But is coffee – or any form of caffeine really – right for you?
In this post, we’ll dive into . . .
- how coffee helps your running performance,
- the side effects of drinking coffee before running,
- how to account for your caffeine tolerance when making your coffee,
- share some best practices for drinking coffee before a morning run!
Let’s jump in!
Deep Grind – What Is Caffeine, and How Does It Work?
Caffeine is a naturally-occurring substance that is found in the seeds, leaves, and nuts of various plants – including coffee beans and tea leaves.
Caffeine is considered a stimulant drug – in short, this means that it speeds up the signals sent from your brain to your body.
Caffeine works primarily by binding itself to nerve receptors in our brain, often taking the place of adenosine – the brain chemical which makes us drowsy and want to sleep.
This causes our nerve cells to speed up, and this increase in activity signals to our bodies to produce adrenaline.
More adrenaline, as you can imagine, makes us more pumped!
Thanks to the adrenaline, your heart beats faster, your airway opens up, blood flow to your muscles increases, the liver releases sugar to the bloodstream, and your muscles tighten up.
In other words…
coffee = caffeine = adrenaline release = ready for action!
How To Drink Coffee Before Running For Maximum Results
It’s been shown that caffeine helps boost performance – both in high-intensity sprint-style athletes and endurance athletes.
But – there are certain things to consider in order to optimise your morning coffee-fueled run.
Let’s check them out!
Time Your Coffee Right
You want to take your caffeine hit around 45 minutes before you start your run workout, according to this study – you have to wait some time for the coffee to hit your bloodstream, but if you wait too long after drinking caffeine before running or the effects will begin to fade.
Registered dietitian and personal trainer, Tina Marinaccio, mentions that each person reacts differently to caffeine so the amount and timing should be adjusted slightly based on your personal experience.
She does mention, “According to the USDA, 200mg caffeine consumed 30 minutes in advance of activity (the equivalent of 2 cups 8oz-12oz brewed coffee) is an effective ergogenic aid.”
How Much Coffee To Drink Before a Run
Studies have shown that 3-5mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is optimal to see the performance benefits while running.
Whereas a regular cup of the store’s Pike Place medium-roast coffee has 155 mg.
Some studies and running coaches will recommend 2-3 cups of coffee before a run. However, Amber O’Brian, a medical doctor at Mango Clinic, says that much may not be necessary. “A single cup of coffee is enough to make you ready for a productive run. Just one cup of coffee will boost your speed and endurance that is needed for running, along with minimal or no side effects.”
One Starbucks espresso shot has about 75 milligrams of caffeine (ref).
Whereas a regular cup of the store’s Pike Place medium-roast coffee has 155 mg.
Some studies have shown that 3-5mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is optimal to see the performance benefits while running (this works out around 2 mugs of coffee for a 75kg person) – but it has to be recognised that there are negative consequences of too much coffee.
Don’t Drink Too Much Caffeine Before a Run
While it’s easy to get carried away with your cup of morning joe, be aware that higher doses do not lead to a performance improvement.
Instead, you’ll experience side effects such as dizziness, anxiety, heart palpitations, and inability to sleep well.
Joseph Nelson, fitness reviewer at Cardiozero, agrees: “There is always a possibility to drink too much coffee. For more people, 12 ounces of strong coffee – one big serving – in the morning before running works well.
There are tremendous benefits of filling yourself up with caffeine before a run. The most evident one is how it has the potential to give a boost of adrenaline to increase the energy and pace for the day. It can also improve fat utilization to make sure you have productive workouts every day.
However, as we all know, everything comes at a price. Where its perks can instantly improve your running sessions it also has some drawbacks that shouldn’t be ignored. This includes Gastrointestinal distress, increased urination, and headaches right after the workout.”
Dr. O’Brian mentions, “You aren’t likely to experience any downside if you drink 1-2 cups of coffee before running. However, some people observe a few side effects after consuming coffee with an empty stomach. These side effects may include an upset stomach, headaches, jitters, and increased urination.
You can avoid these side effects by drinking coffee after breakfast.”
In other words, exercise control when preparing your coffee before a run, and try not to drink it on an empty stomach!
Everyone’s Caffeine Tolerance Is Different
Here’s something worth bearing in mind, especially if you’re a coffee rookie: everyone has different tolerances to caffeine.
If you’ve been drinking it daily for a while, you can expect to build up a resistance to small doses – and may need stronger stuff to wake you up. If you don’t get that proper dosage before you head out, you’ll likely feel sluggish and won’t perform as well.
Similarly, remember that your build affects your tolerance. Physiopedia recommends 5–9 milligrams per kilogram of body mass. Your caffeine tolerance can also be affected by the ratio of muscle to fat, height, and overall body weight.
Coffee Doesn’t Actually Dehydrate You
It’s common wisdom that coffee leaves you dehydrated – new studies however reckon that’s not true. While caffeinated beverages do have a diuretic effect, leading to water loss, there is no strong evidence that this is enough to cause even mild dehydration.
If you are using coffee to boost your morning run, it’s worth remembering that even if the coffee doesn’t dehydrate you, the run will.
Replenish those fluids lost with water, and feel free to add electrolytes.
- Related: Hydration Guide for Runners
Just Tasting It Works
Recent studies in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism have shown that the effects of caffeine can begin as soon as it enters your mouth.
Taste receptors signal to your brain that caffeine is coming, so the effects begin immediately.
This was proven in studies where the participants swilled a caffeine drink in their mouth before spitting it out.
Pre-Run Caffeine Can Even Help Your Post-Run Recovery
A study of participants in a 15k race showed that those who drank caffeine before the run had an enhanced anti-inflammatory response after the run – suggesting that caffeine can lower inflammation and help you recover faster.
Just remember that too much caffeine can have the opposite effects, mentioned earlier in the article: gastrointestinal upset (i.e. – the coffee runs right through you!), nervousness, mental confusion, inability to focus, and inability to sleep.
Some people have pre-existing issues with weak pelvic floor muscles, which can cause diarrhea while running. If you’ve experienced that in the past, you may want to work with a physical therapist or go in the opposite direction with something like Pepto Bismol or Imodium.
Remember that this condition is also majorly affected by diet, which means you could be short on electrolytes, or be eating too much fiber (beans), spicy foods, or sugar. Before ruling out caffeine and the benefits it can have on your running performance, try adjusting your diet and rule that out as the culprit first.
How To Take Your Coffee Before a Run
Based on the research, my recommendation is as follows:
Take a cup of strong coffee 45 minutes before you go for a run.
Adjust the strength and quantity based on your tolerance and experience; if in doubt, start with a small, weaker coffee.
If you’re going running first thing in the morning, take the coffee the minute you wake up.
Supplement your coffee with some food to fuel your run – a banana is perhaps the perfect pre-morning run snack, especially with some peanut butter for extra sustenance (read more on what to eat before running).
How Do You Take It?
Everyone has their coffee rituals.
If I’m not in a hurry (which is unusual) I’ll get out my Aeropress and take time making the perfect cup.
If your usual ritual involves a sugary, syrupy coffee from Starbucks, you’ll want to make some adjustments. While you may feel a kick from the sugar off the bat, it will not last throughout your run and could cause a slump halfway through the race. Instead, try replacing that drink with some cream or milk and a spoonful of raw sugar or honey.
There’s no reason to suffer through your coffee if you don’t like it black…but you want to be sure you’re improving run, not hurting it.
How do you take your coffee?