Dublin Marathon: How to ‘legally’ enhance your performance

Caffeine drinks, caffeine gels, caffeine powders, caffeine pills and no sex

Ireland's marathon record holder, Catherina McKiernan, talks to Ian O'Riordan about her tips for those running in Dublin City's Marathon.


Dr Hunter S Thompson always said the crazy thing about any big city marathon is the way these masses of mostly skinny runners arrive at the start line for a race they have a fat chance of winning. 

“Why do they punish themselves so brutally, for no prize at all?” Thompson wrote in The Curse of Lono, a little gem of a book charting his journey to Hawaii to cover the 1980 Honolulu marathon. 

“What kind of sick instinct would cause 8,000 supposedly smart people to get up at four in the morning and stagger at high speed through the streets of Waikiki for 26 ball-busting miles in a race that less than a dozen of them have the slightest chance of winning?” 

He then figured it out: “Marathon running, like golf, is a game for players, not winners. This is why Wilson sells golf clubs, and Nike sells running shoes. The Eighties will not be a healthy decade for games designed only for winners – except at the very pinnacle of professional sport; like the Super Bowl, or the heavyweight championship of the world. The rest of us will have to adjust to this notion, or go mad from losing... the concept of victory through defeat has already taken root.” 

Nearly four decades on and the Dublin marathon is no exception – because for the vast majority of the 20,000 runners lining up on Fitzwilliam Square on Sunday morning it’s all about finishing – or rather the finishers t-shirt. 

That doesn’t mean some of them don’t act like they might have a chance of winning. Many will be running as well trained and equipped as the elites, while also going to some lengths to enhance their marathon performance. The heart-rate monitors are now mostly standard, as are the compression socks and kinetic tape, and it would be hard to find anyone not cranked up on caffeine gels and lightly powdered protein shakes. All perfectly legal, naturally. 

Running shoes

And it doesn’t stop there. My accountant rang me from New York a few weeks ago, raving about his latest running shoes, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%. He’s living and working there now, training for next month’s New York marathon, and is convinced the runners are giving him an advantage. 

“They improve your time by 4%,” he said. “And I’m definitely training faster. Just don’t look at the price, because they’re mad expensive.” 

Not that he’s ever counted the cost of any potential benefit: he abstained from sex for two weeks before his last marathon, convinced that would enhance his performance by about 5%. 

The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% does come with some credibility. It was designed specifically for the Nike sub-two hour marathon attempt in Monza last May – at some considerable cost too, containing some new midsole cushioning material not previously used in any running shoe, hence the “4% extra bounce”. 

On the day Eliud Kipchoge ran that still eye-popping 2:00:25, although that doesn’t prove the running shoes offered any actual advantage. Indeed 4% for an elite marathon runner is worth about five minutes over 26.2 miles, so any advantage was likely more around 1%. Still sounded good to me. 

This by the way is the same accountant who these days can’t seem to put anything past his lips unless it contains caffeine. Caffeine drinks, caffeine gels, caffeine bars, caffeine powders, caffeine pills. Fancy a piece of my new caffeine chewing gum with added guarana? 

This hasn’t happened by chance. For the past 30 years, caffeine’s effect on endurance has been widely examined, and the only surprising thing is that people still question the performance-enhancing benefits. The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) used to consider caffeine an illegal performance enhancing drug, at least in doses above 1,200 mg, around eight cups of coffee. 

All that changed in 2004, when Wada removed it from the banned list, partly because some studies pointed towards a decreased performance, mainly due to dehydration. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a double espresso about 30 minutes before the start of a marathon except to say it always works well for me. 

Wada worried again

That doesn’t make caffeine harmless, and you only have to read the label of any popular sporting supplement to realise how much higher the doses are becoming. Now Wada are worried again, and in recent years have placed caffeine back on the Monitoring Program: what this means is they’ve started to monitor caffeine levels in anti-doping samples taking during competition, and will then decide whether there is enough evidence to suggest it should be considered properly performance enhancing and therefore put it back on the banned list. You have been warned. 

My Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% arrived last Monday, and I’ve been running in them all week. They fit like a glove and everything about the way they feel and hit the ground certainly help facilitate all my old lessons in proper running style.

The gently floating cadence, ensuring the body is running with the legs, not on them; the lifting of the leg with each stride, rather than landing on it; landing on the ball of the foot, rather than the heel; the shifting of all weight to the upper body, the arms held low, the hands positioned at waist level, as if carrying freshly chopped bamboo spears in either hand; and last but not least, in the words of Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, the hips held up and forward “as if in the moment of deepest penetration”. 

My Friday morning run came in about 4% quicker than the week before, after which I checked the price to discover I’d ordered the Nike Zoom Fly, the cheaper version of the shoe which comes without the 4% advantage. And that’s no lie.

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