Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Like any addict, I didn’t think this was going to happen to me. It started as a once in a while habit – a pick me up after a late night of cramming for exams. It wasn’t long though before I progressed to a daily fix, first laden with sugar and milk, and then as the addiction grew roots into my system, I craved it black and scalding hot. If I didn’t get my cup of coffee first thing in the morning , there was no hope for the day.

Though I was completely hooked on my daily cup, I had not reached junkie-status. A cup or two a day did the trick often enough. I probably would have continued on in this state for years, had I not decided to enter the world of marathons. Long
training runs and daily six a.m. workouts demanded that I start thinking about how I fueled my body immediately before and during strenuous exercise.

But instead of turning to whole foods, I followed popular training advice and decided to supplement with scientifically formulated options from the running store. Shot blocks, gels, sport beans, chomps – whatever you call them. They are small, sweet, portable snacks, no bigger than two tablespoons and contain the proper ratio of electrolytes and simple carbohydrates. To make the gels sexy, extra vitamins or herbs are added to the gels promising to help a runner go faster for longer. In plain English, they’re legal performance enhancers.

Being a coffee addict, I naturally scoffed at the super herbs and amino acids, and went straight for the extra caffeine. Between 60-70% of all the products contain some caffeine. The average is about 30 mg of caffeine which equates to 20-30% of an average cup of drip coffee. But, I’m trying to run a marathon here.

I need all the help I can get.

So I skipped right over the ones that said caffeine to the ones reading ‘2x caffeine.’ At first, I only took one ‘2x caffeine’ during the last 3-4 mile slug. But as my mileage creeped up, I switched over to only amped-up caffeine dosages, so that I was soon consuming the equivalent of 1-2 cups of coffee during the run. That’s in addition to the two cups that I downed with breakfast Then I discovered the espresso shot gel from Clif Bars. 100mg of pure caffeine right before the run to put me at around 5 cups of coffee on a long run day – all before noon. At that rate, I was going to need an IV from Starbucks on race day to feel any effects whatsoever.

Then I read this interesting book called “Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life” by Brendan Brazier. The book espouses an excellent theory about how to nourish your body while performing extreme exercise, and it also highlighted a rather obvious principle about the use of stimulants during exercise. (And no, it’s not the vegan meals that help you perform better either. Here’s a link to the No Meat Athlete’s blog post on the basic premise of his book if you are interested.)

There are two ways to get energy: directly from food consumed or stimulation. When I eat a banana and a granola bar, the carbohydrates, fat and protein in these items will help fuel my impending run. My body will literally digest the food and use it directly to power the run, as opposed to storing it for later (for fat) or for regular maintenance (cell regeneration). When I drink a cup of coffee, it will stimulate my body and only feel like I have increased energy. I’m buying energy on credit when I drink a cup of coffee, and I’m paying for energy with cash when I eat a banana. But when the workout is over, my body pays back that energy plus interest, leaving me exhausted for the remainder of the day.

In “Thrive” Brendan doesn’t discourage the use of caffeine to enhance workouts but he strongly advocates that it should be used sparingly and only during the most strenuous workouts or races. By only using caffeine sparingly, a true burst of energy and endurance is felt. Just like I plan to race my marathon in a lighter pair of Brooks running shoes than I’ve been training in, the idea that I would be able to actually feel a surge of energy from a cup of coffee seemed like it could be a huge physical (and psychological) advantage.

So I quit coffee. One day I woke up and just didn’t have my daily cup. I did the same the next day too, and the day after that. This was not a painless activity. The first day I felt lightheaded, the second day I had a pounding headache, and the third day I couldn’t focus. Note what I didn’t feel: tired, which is naturally what I assumed I would feel without my daily kick in the pants. Eventually, after less than a week’s time all withdrawal symptoms had passed. .

After abstaining from coffee for a whole week, I had my first cup of coffee right before a long run. Not only did I feel the coffee stimulate my body into overdrive, but I felt excited and even giddy about a four hour workout. Then when I set out on my run, that nervous energy dissipated into a cool, lightness which took me right through the eighteen mile hurdle. After failing to complete eighteen miles on two separate occasions, when I finally did conquer that distance, I felt that I had reached pre-run fueling nirvana – if such a thing exists.

I’m oddly very proud that I kicked my coffee habit, and super psyched about the new little boost that I can look forward to from a cup of coffee on race days. And that’s just the thing about running marathons. It takes me to places both literally and figuratively that I never before imagined. A year ago I would have acted as if giving up coffee was akin to going without air, but now after a few pages from some book, I’m off it.

To someone who hasn’t run a marathon, the greatest part of the whole exercise would seem to be crossing that finish line, but as I’m getting closer and closer to my big day, I have a sneaking suspicion that the race is just the cherry on top. More and more, the training seems to be the most magical part – from the way a fellow marathoner can become an instant friend to the surprise realization that I can get ready for work – including a shower – in under 15 minutes. But of course, I still haven’t actually run a marathon yet, so what do I know?

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