How to Come Down from Caffeine

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by Chris Bagg

It’s 2:34 PM, thirteen days before my last Ironman of the year, and I’m breaking my commitment to stick to only two cups of coffee a day. Great way to establish credibility, right? And you thought you were here to learn about how to kick the habit, huh? Well, we’ll get there (I hope). First of all, though, why am I even trying to get off of caffeine in the first place? And why so far out from the race, too? Wasn’t there a study, like, just last year, that established you only needed three days to get clean from caffeine?

It’s a well-established fact that caffeine is a performance enhancer. WADA (the World Anti-Doping Association) toyed with the possibility of putting caffeine on the banned list a few years ago, before basically the entire cycling industry lost their collective shit. So we do know that it improves performance, but—as with anything—it’s important to know how caffeine improves performance, and under what circumstances. Caffeine is a stimulant of the central nervous system, and one of its effects is to block a chemical reception that triggers the onset of drowsiness. So, first of all, you get less tired/sleepy. Not too many athletes get sleepy during their events, but a little more alertness never hurt anyone. The next helpful effect of caffeine is that it helps us utilize fat as a fuel source, especially as we run low on glycogen. For any athlete doing an event longer than 90 minutes, this is hugely helpful. Thirdly—and probably the most pertinent—caffeine changes our perception of effort. Think about that again. Most of what drives our performances out on course is our perception of how things are going, rather than how they are actually going (this is a whole other blog post). If we can change our perception of effort, it is possible we can rewrite our entire experience of the endurance event at hand, perhaps turning in a performance we never even thought possible.

Before you head to the store, though, to stock up on beans, a very important caveat. As with any drug, we build up tolerances. And, like many Americans, we tend to already drink two to three cups of coffee a day, numbing our response to the popular drug. And if you’ve ever had to go until noon without your fix (or if a clever spouse switched the decaf on you), you know that the withdrawal symptoms of caffeine addiction are no joke: lethargy, terrible headaches, irritability. That aforementioned study on coming down from caffeine breezily posited that only three days are necessary for the body to be rid of its addiction to this particular drug. I’ll bet that those freaking study authors drink tea, and herbal tea, at that. Try to kick your habit three days before a race, and you will be so miserable in the days leading up to the event you may decide to DNS.

But it IS important to get off the drug. If you don’t, you’ll need caffeine simply to bring yourself up to your normal level of ability. For some, that may be fine, but if you are looking for that extra zip on race day to nab that Kona qualification, then getting off of caffeine may really help. If you’ve ever managed to get away from it for a stretch of time, you know what that first cup back is like: speed in a mug. How is this legal? you may think to yourself, and I’m not sure if I should drive right now…caffeine to the virgin (or, at least, scoured out) system is fairly amazing, and it can really power great performances on the race course.

OK, I hope I’ve convinced you. So how do we get there? Here’s the system I usually put into play while getting down from caffeine:

13 days out: 1.5 cups of coffee in the AM, with the freedom to have half a cup around 2-3 PM
12-9 days out: repeat the above process
8-6 days out: 1 cup of coffee in the AM, with the freedom to have half a cup around 2-3 PM
5-3 days out: 1 cup of coffee in the AM, nothing else
2-1 days out: 1 cup of green tea with only 35mg of caffeine in it (one tea bag, steeped for three minutes)
Race Day: nothing with breakfast, 100mg caffeine pill 45’ before race start

Why no coffee itself on race day? Well, the tannins in coffee can mess with your stomach on race morning, moreso than the caffeine, so I avoid the drink entirely, take my 100mg of caffeine pre-race, and am usually absolutely flying by race start.