Competitor Magazine columnist Susan Lacke reflects on lessons learned after 30 days without coffee.
Written by: Susan Lacke
First things first, readers: Have you entered the photo contest on the Competitor Facebook page? If not, what are you doing with your life? Goodness. Go. Now. I’ll still be here when you come back. Good. Thanks for entering. If you won, I’ll contact you next Friday. For now, read on.
A while back, I committed to giving up coffee for 30 days to see if it impacted my athletic performance.
That time is up. It’s been 30 days without a single cup of coffee. 720 hours. 43,200 minutes. 2,592,000 seconds (not that I’ve been counting).
The good news: I’m still alive. The better news: I had some interesting revelations along the way. The bad news: I’m never <bleep>ing doing something this hard again.
Am I going to tell you to give up the java? Maybe. Or maybe not. Here’s how it went down:
The next time I hear the words “cold turkey,” I’ll collapse into a fetal position and wail. Going from 5 or more Venti cups of coffee a day to complete sobriety was foolish. Perhaps the idea of tapering off my consumption gradually had some merit after all.
For the first five days without caffeine, there was a small Guatemalan child living in my head, pounding on my skull with an ice pick and demanding to know why I turned my back on his village. My brain was fuzzy, I discovered my inner narcoleptic, and my mouth dropped more f-bombs than a Lil’ Jon music video. In short, it was miserable.
Then the strangest thing happened: On the sixth day, I felt – dare I say? – pretty darn good. By day 8, I was symptom-free.
Training Without Coffee
The foundation of the 30-day coffee break was to discover if there was any impact on my training. I had never really participated in a training session or race without a cup of coffee in my system. My curiosity was piqued when Brendan Brazier described the negative effects of coffee in his book, “Thrive.” In it, he described how quitting coffee could increase performance significantly.
I used to drink multiple mugs of coffee every morning. My morning run or ride would always be great, fueled by Joe and rewarded with Starbucks. I’d crash in the afternoon, too tired to do anything more than sludge through my swim workout.
Within days of beginning this challenge, I noticed progress. Instead of a 3:00 slump, I tended to maintain homeostasis most of the day, even having some energy left over after my evening swim workouts. Each day, I felt better. My workouts started to improve. I didn’t want to admit it, but not having coffee was actually helping.
Despite the marked improvement in my shorter weekday training, I remained skeptical. For my first three-hour ride without coffee, I plotted a loop course to keep me near my house at all times, certain I would bonk and need to cut my ride short.
Convinced it was a fluke, I woke up the next day with apprehension about the two-hour run I had on the training plan. Turns out, that run went really well, too. All my long workouts during these 30 days were the best I’ve had to date. True, I didn’t get faster, but that wasn’t an expectation in this experiment — I just felt better than I had before.
Had my precious nonfat lattes been sandbagging me this whole time? I didn’t want to believe it.
Grounds For Thought
Perhaps the most damning evidence came from my boyfriend, Neil. Twenty five days in to this challenge, I asked him if he had noticed any differences in my demeanor since giving up the java. His response:
“Yeah. I mean, you’re not all BLAAAAAAAH* anymore.”
*The “BLAAAAAAAH” was accompanied with crossed eyes, a wagging tongue, jazz hands, and a vigorous shaking of the head. Apparently, in my caffeinated life, I resembled a Labrador on crystal meth.
That got me thinking. I had paid so much attention how the lack of coffee was impacting my training, but along the way, I mellowed out a little, too. With a to-do list a mile long, my mind would race and I would get easily overwhelmed. I used to down copious amounts of coffee, believing the kick was just what I needed. During this experiment, I learned something: without coffee, that to-do list was still there, but I could look at it and calmly determine how to prioritize tasks. I’m a lot more efficient when I’m not wasting time working myself up into a hyper-caffeinated frenzy.
Was a life without coffee just what the doctor ordered? Hardly. Though I saw a lot of benefits during these 30 days, I also encountered some detriments. Without coffee, my exercise-induced asthma came back with a vengeance – turns out coffee actually alleviates this condition for some. I was also hungry all the time; I later learned from a doctor that coffee is an appetite suppressant.
The biggest challenge was the wait. Like a mom misses her child at summer camp, I longed for the day I could be reunited with coffee. It wasn’t so much that I needed the fix — after getting through the detox, I was fine. I just missed my comfort food. Coffee has been part of my routine for over 15 years now. My friends and I have had many a heart-to-heart in our local coffee shops. Neil and I had our first date at a Starbucks. It feels sacrilegious to turn down the bottomless cup of coffee at Saturday breakfasts.
As much as I learned and improved over the 30 days, I couldn’t wait for them to be over.
Today is my birthday. I plan on celebrating with an expertly crafted latte from my favorite coffeehouse. Will I go on a caffeinated bender? Hardly. I’ve got a race this weekend, and I admit, these 30 days have been some of the best I’ve felt in training. I’d like to continue that. After this one latte, I’ll go back to abstaining for a while.
Still, I won’t quit entirely. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these 30 days, it’s that I don’t need coffee…but I do want it. For that reason, I’ll still consume, but sparingly. Coffee, for me, is now in the same category as expensive wine: It’s not for everyday consumption, but instead serves to enhance special times. Whether that special time is girl talk, a leisurely brunch, or on the sidelines of a friend’s race, I’ll save the coffee for when I can truly enjoy every last drop.
Now…if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a very special date with a latte.
See you Out There!
Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Look for her first print column in the March issue of Competitor, and follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.