Conjure up that feeling you get when you’re an hour or so behind on getting your morning coffee; the lethargy, the fuzzed focus, the general hatred of the world and all things in it.
Now imagine being 48 hours into that feeling, knowing you have another 48 hours to go.
Welcome, my friends, to the Coffee Taper, or Shit We Try When PRs Are on the Line.
Not exactly a fringe practice but also probably not quite mainstream, I happened upon the idea from Brad, who in turn got it from his coach, Neely Spence Gracey. She’s blogged about it before, but a quick summary:
- It allegedly takes a couple days for your body to drop out of the caffeine cycle and get the full benefits again, so come Monday/Tuesday of race week, you’re off joe. Dunzo.
- Neely claims decaf’s OK, but I went completely off, since decaf isn’t zero caffeine (and some decaf’s nearly as a strong as regular coffee).
- That’s basically it.
- Oh, yeah, try to hang on by the tips of your fingernails until you can have coffee again.
The last part’s the fun bit, obviously, but I’m living proof it can be done. Not gonna lie, though: It’s murderous.
I quit coffee after Monday, and Tuesday was like wandering through Silent Hill 2 with slightly less Pyramid Head; definitely fogged in, not quite sure what was going on, just trying to survive until the next save point.
It’s less bad after that, but it’s still not easy. I don’t drink coffee before running, so my tuneup workout and other runs felt fine—not even really all that sluggish—but grinding out a desk job on those days ranked just shy of a “no” on the Bueno Scale.
Then it came…
I switched it up this year and opted to focus on hitting my stride for a 5K that runs through my neighborhood, with the dual goals of finally ducking under 19 minutes and defeating the other fast dads (if I could do the first, the latter became feasible). I’ve (oddly, maybe) struggled on the shorter end of the race spectrum, probably because I don’t have a ton of top-end speed—I don’t really hit my stride until the race gets to 15K/10 miles or so.
Coming into the morning, I felt good about my training—essentially the Daniels 2nd and 3rd edition 5K plans Frankensteined together—but the only thing that mattered when I woke up was the French press downstairs.
A caveat here: I have no idea exactly when you should reintroduce caffeine on race morning to get the most benefit. I guessed at roughly an hour before the gun to balance risk/reward, but there may be actual science out there that says something smarter.
Regardless of exact timing, you’re gonna notice that first cup hitting your system. I downed a second cup, got set and jogged the seven blocks to the start line.
The good news: an abbreviated warmup was enough to even things out and get me feeling ready. The bad news: coffee jitters were hitting like the Riders of Rohan showing up at Pelennor Fields, and there were only about five minutes to let myself settle down.
Well, I wouldn’t need to worry about my heart rate being too low at the start, anyway.
The competition was obvious: Local D1 College Kid (clear favorite), Dude in the Fast Club Singlet, and Fast Dad #2, plus some other guys who looked like they could mix it up. Fast Dad #2 had posted a 2017 time in this race just slightly faster than I planned for this year, so he was my target.
Weather didn’t look like a major factor, although morning rain was tapering off, leaving things a little sloppier than would be ideal. Temps were great—right around 50—and wind wasn’t going to play havoc.
As is Local 5K tradition, a couple 10-year-olds sprinted ahead of everyone at the gun and blew up two blocks into the race, and the rest of us jockeyed for position. I tethered myself a few seconds back of Fast Dad #2 (in blue) and another dude, and I rolled with Local Run Club Guy I Sorta Know (in red) before gapping him around the race’s first choke point, a tight turn on to some busted slate sidewalks.
I was running this mile entirely by feel, knowing that Fast Dad #2 was easily capable of opening in 5:50–55, which meant I could be on PR pace with no problem, provided I didn’t feel like I was killing myself.
(I didn’t feel like I was killing myself.)
If there was a rain factor in the race, this is where it showed up—most of mile 2 is either on those busted slate sidewalks or just busted sidewalks in general, with the addition of a couple hard turns and a hairpin at the end of the mile—looking at the splits, I played it pretty conservative, then surged over a goofy hill (really a ramp) just before the hairpin, pushing it down a gear to prep for the final stretch.
I immediately traded back-and-forth with the dude who had initially been hanging with Fast Dad #2 (who himself gapped us solidly in mile 2).
This stretch has, for whatever reason, been both a mental and physical block for me—after swinging around a building on Girard College’s campus, it hits a long straightaway that’s turned into a fade in past races.
This time, energy was going to be no problem (thanks, coffee!). Block-by-block, I ratcheted the pace down, still not bothering to look at my watch—this was just going to be about finding what I could in the late going. Hitting the penultimate turn, I checked off my mental reminder to start the final press at the gates to Eastern State Penitentiary, rather than risk leaving too much in the tank, and I put in one last surge at the final cross street before hitting the line in 18:48.
So, of course, the big question: Was the coffee taper worth it?
The answer isn’t a strict yes or no; it’s somewhere around a marginal yes, getting to a stronger yes in the late going.
It’s definitely a strategy I’d employ for a longer race (say like a half that starts at 7:30 a.m. or something stupid like that), but I don’t know that the payback on the whole process ends up as a significant benefit for just a 5K (versus just normally drinking coffee before the race).