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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

One thing that can help some people get up and get moving, is a simple cup of coffee - or two cups, or three. Caffeine is also known to enhance athletic performance. Now, we're not talking about the high-energy drinks that have been recently linked to illnesses and possibly, to death. We're talking about the systematic, and methodical, use of caffeine by many endurance athletes. Reporter Murray Carpenter looks at the benefits - and possible risks.

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MURRAY CARPENTER, BYLINE: The Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, is an extreme event - a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride...

(SOUNDBITE OF IRONMAN COMPETITION)

CARPENTER: ...topped off by a marathon.

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CARPENTER: The racers need to drink plenty of fluids, and eat energy bars and gels. Most also take a performance-enhancing substance that is legal and effective.

SARAH PIAMPIANO: While I'm racing, caffeine is actually a pretty important part of my day; particularly in the Ironman, where it's such a long race.

CARPENTER: Sarah Piampiano is a professional triathlete. She integrates calories and caffeine into her race-day diet, using energy gels. Each contains 50 milligrams of caffeine, as a shot.

PIAMPIANO: Before the race, I typically take one gel that's - has one shot of caffeine in it. And then when I get onto the bike, each hour, I take one shot of caffeine.

CARPENTER: By the last half of the marathon, Piampiano says she ups her dose to two shots every 20 minutes, to get her through the rest of the race.

MATTHEW GANIO: Caffeine has been well-known to be a beneficial drug to use during sport. It's been studied for many years, and over a variety of different types of sports. It will improve your performance.

CARPENTER: Matthew Ganio is the director of the University of Arkansas Human Performance Laboratory. He says it's important to take the right dose.

GANIO: The example being 80-kilogram individual, needing 6 milligrams per kilogram body mass. That's four strong cups of coffee.

CARPENTER: But instead of guzzling coffee, many athletes rely on products that allow them to better quantify their caffeine. Brian Vaughan is CEO of GU Energy Labs, which makes gels that blend carbohydrates, amino acids, electrolytes and caffeine.

BRIAN VAUGHAN: The top-end athletes, the pros, want to be able to meter out caffeine during the course of an endurance event. It's always nice to have that second wind late in the race; where you can energize the mind, stimulate the mind, with the central nervous system response from caffeine.

CARPENTER: Some researchers urge restraint. University of Connecticut doctoral candidate Evan Johnson says caffeine works best when used judiciously.

EVAN JOHNSON: And you find a lot of people who constantly ingest caffeine throughout the day and therefore - you know, need alcohol, or some sort of sleep aid, to get to bed; and then in the morning are so groggy that they need caffeine again till you get back into this - kind of vicious cycle of, you know, supplementation.

CARPENTER: That's what happened to the players on England's soccer team. They took caffeine pills to amp up for a recent World Cup qualifying game, then needed sleeping pills to wind down. Some athletes say they avoid caffeine altogether because it makes them jittery, or bothers their stomachs. Others - like Sam Gyde, of Belgium - take a less-systematic approach.

SAM GYDE: I just drink lots of coffee, so I am naturally very caffeinated. During training and racing, I use a gel, which contains caffeine. It's not like, with any purpose but yeah, I'm more or less like, a heavy caffeine user.

CARPENTER: It works for Gide. He has won his age group twice, at Kona. And you don't have to be an Ironman to benefit. A recent Australian study shows that caffeine also enables sedentary men to work out more vigorously.

For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.

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