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When used correctly, caffeine can give you a big performance boost on race day.
Three out of four Americans consume coffee regularly, and I’d venture to say triathletes are in line with the national average. The average consumption is 200 milligrams of caffeine daily (or about two cups of regular drip coffee). Here’s what triathletes need to know about caffeine’s benefits, risks and race-day performance benefits.
Numerous studies on well-trained endurance athletes have shown positive responses like the ones below from about 2 cups of coffee (or 1.5–4 milligrams per pound of body weight).
Decreased RPE (rate of perceived exertion). Drinking caffeine can make you feel like you are not working as hard.
Increased time to exhaustion. Caffeine has also been shown to spare muscle glycogen, thereby boosting endurance.
When to Consume
To make the most of its performance-enhancing effects, drinking coffee about 1 hour before a training session or race is ideal for most triathletes. Caffeine is absorbed by the stomach and small intestine and peaks about 45–60 minutes after ingestion, then lasts for 1–2 hours (or longer, as individual responses vary). The first few days an athlete drinks caffeine, he or she may experience a small increase in urine output and increased blood pressure and pulse rate, in addition to increased alertness. After about four days a tolerance builds, and all effects (good and bad) equalize except for the increased stomach acid, which persists.
Many athletes will try to give up caffeine in the days leading up to a race in hopes of gaining the most “bang for their buck” when resuming it on race day. However, as most of you who have either tried to give up caffeine or not taken it in for 1–2 days are well aware, abruptly stopping often leads to withdrawal symptoms including headache and fatigue. You may want to gradually decrease your caffeine intake over the 4–7 days prior to your race and then re-up your intake to the “optimal dose” of 100–300mg, (1–3 mg/kg), on race day to maximize effects. Test this in training as you don’t want to experiment on race day.
Use the “less is more” approach when adding caffeine to your race-day nutrition plan. Many triathletes will drink their morning coffee, then include 1–2 servings of caffeinated products late in the race to offset fatigue. Others will take only a small amount pre-race and more spread throughout the race. Both can work but require practice. Keep in mind that the side-effects of excessive caffeine intake may include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, increased blood pressure and pulse rate and anxiety.
Unless you have fine-tuned your specific ideal race day “caffeine Rx,” most triathletes should remember that they will already be amped up on race morning, so they may want to decrease their usual caffeine intake by up to 50 percent to avoid overexcitement and excess bowel activity during the race.
Myth Buster! Is caffeine dehydrating? In a word, no! All regular caffeine drinkers can count your cup(s) of Joe or tea as part of your daily fluids.
8 oz serving
80–135mg of caffeine
8 oz serving
40–60mg of caffeine
2 oz serving
100mg of caffeine
Extreme Sport Beans
50mg of caffeine
GU Roctane Energy Gel
35mg of caffeine
PowerBar Energy Blasts Energy Chews
6 pieces of regular caffeine flavors
25mg of caffeine
Tailwind Caffeine Endurance Fuel
35mg of caffeine
Lauren Antonucci is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, three-time Ironman finisher and the founding director of Nutrition Energy in New York City.