Caffeine and Triathlon…

Here’s the question as I’ve most recently seen it posed: “I’m interested in hearing thoughts about benefits/detriments of caffeine on a triathlete. I know for a fact that peter Reid would abstain for a month before Kona to maximize the effect that day. Normann Stadler ate like 17 2Xcaffine Powergel’s at IM world championships in 2006.”

Here’s the summary of my reading on the topic.

Caffiene creates positive feedback in a fat metabolism cycle. caffeine can essentially increase your blood fat levels if you surprise your body with it. (If you remember high school biology there are 2 kinds of feedback, positive feedback and negative feedback Homeostasis (body regulation functions) is generally a setup of a whole slew of negative feedback.)

If your body always has caffiene in it you aren’t going to see any effect because your body always operates in this zone. Don’t think that you can lose fat tissue by doing this, your body’s negative feedback systems will get ahold of your blood fatty acid levels and this effect is negated.

Therefore use of caffeine can have a real plus on race day for an endurance event. Your glycogen stores will last longer because your body will be able to metabolize a higher proportion of fat. The average 15-17 hour IM athlete ends their day in this region because they put such a tax on their body but for them their glycogen needs to get really depleted before this happens.

So, should you try hyping yourself up on caffeine on race day? Yes and No. If you haven’t done it in training please don’t be a dumbass and try something new when it comes time to perform at your best. (If you haven’t already heard that advice a million times you should do some reading) The other things to keep in mind are:

  • caffeine *IS* a diuretic, this means you’re going to lose more fluids in your pee. you might think twice about how much time you can gain by biking a bit faster but taking 10 washroom break (there are ways around this apparently, they’re just never shown on the NBC Kona broadcast)
  • Caffeine does give you a mental buzz. getting a mental buzz puts you at a higher risk for a mental crash. It doesn’t mean you’re going to completely drain yourself by getting up on a buzz, but it does mean you need to know that it’s a buzz and keep eating/drinking while you’re on it. You won’t come off the buzz as hard if you’re keeping yourself well nourished/hydrated, but it’s harder to remember to do so when you feel good.
  • Caffeine increases cellular Calcium ion levels, this in turn leads to increased interstitial Potassium ion levels, (this means potassium moves out of cells into the juice between them) For your skeletal muscle and nerves this means that the contraction (or firing of the nerve) is going to be slightly retarded.

What do you make of these other effects on your body? well do a bit of thinking and decide for yourself. My opinion on the the ion concentration stuff is as follows:

This might be a good thing if you want your muscle to pull really really hard (once) but generally this isn’t a great idea for a triathlete. If your muscle fiber is going to pull harder or longer on each rep it’s going to get tired faster. As we all know a slow twitch muscle fiber has been built during training to work at low-med intensity for (insert big number here) repetitions. If you’re a triathlete who is training smart this is the kind of muscle you’ve got.

Whether or not this effect of caffeine is going to hurt your probably depends on whether or not you’re going to let it. If you’re well trained and well disciplined to cycle at a certain cadence or run with a certain turnover this isn’t going to be of much detriment to you (in fact the increased fatty acid levels will be net benefit) If you’re not disciplined while racing you may feel like pushing a higher gear and loving the speed. This can pretty quickly increase your power output, but you’re not helping yourself out here. Your muscles are going to get tired faster than they should.

If you’re going to be really smart on this topic you might think about using sports legs to counteract this effect of the caffeine and reap the benefits of caffeine while not incurring this effect but I doubt it’ll work as nicely as you theoretically might think it would. I doubt anyone is going to ever try this in a study because it’s just to dang complicated.

So the natural thing to ask I guess is whether or not I do it? Yes, I have done so and plan on doing so again this coming season.

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