Experimenting with Performance-Enhancing Drugs

In every way but one, my 10-mile run at Boston-qualifying pace yesterday was the same as so many others I’ve done.  The lone difference — I was on the juice.

The juice, in this case, was yerba mate, a South American plant whose leaves are used to make an herbal tea with caffeine content similar to that of coffee.  Yerba mate is purported to provide a gentler stimulation than coffee, with less stress on the adrenal glands and none of the jitteriness, anxiety, or sleeplessness that people get from coffee.

[yerba mate photo]

To me, it seems like caffeine is caffeine, but also to me, it seems like cats and dogs should be able to mate and produce dog-cats.  So that doesn’t mean much.  And since Brendan Brazier, Mr. Anti-Stimulation himself, recommends yerba mate for a little extra boost on race day and during the occasional workout, I figured I owed it to myself to at least test it out.

Much as I enjoy a nice caffeine jolt when I’m reading or doing math, I’ve never been one to drink it before workouts.  The two just don’t seem to mix for me.  I think the reason is that when I drink caffeine, my mind races and a lot of good, creative, conscious thought starts flowing.  But on a two-hour run, that’s the last thing I want.  I do my best to zone out on these runs; I worry that I could literally think myself into becoming a crazy person if I didn’t.  Two hours without zoning out and I think I would tie some sort of thought-knot in my head that only tightens as I try to undo it.

As a result, my long run day each week has always been a guaranteed no-coffee day, which I kind of like because it prevents my body from doing whatever it does when one develops a caffeine addiction.

The only other time I “juiced” was when I tried some caffeine pills that I got at the expo on before the Disney Marathon in January. The upshot of this brilliant strategy was a cold sweat before the race even started and my learning rule #4: Don’t try out new goodies on race day.

So I tried yerba mate for the first time on my run yesterday, rather than risk any marathon-morning surprises.  The result: a gentler buzz than coffee without any unpleasant after effects.  Great!

Oh yeah, and a weird sweat during Mile 1 on a sixty-degree day.  And a higher-than-normal heart rate.  Not great.

What’s more (or less),I didn’t notice any appreciable energy gains.  Maybe a little bit of an adrenaline rush at first, but it didn’t seem to last.  My worry about trying something like this before a race is that I’d get a rush at the beginning and a crash later on, during the part where I’m already wondering why I keep coming back for more of this misery.

So I’m thinking I’ll skip the pre-race yerba mate syringe in the buttock.  Maybe I’ll bring along a gel with caffeine as a last resort in case it appears my Boston dreams are vanishing in a sea of bonk.  These little suckers only have 20 mg of caffeine each though, about a fifth the amount in a cup of coffee.

One last thing: do I really want to rely on a drug (it is that, don’t forget) to achieve this goal I’ve worked my ass off to get?  Or do I want to do it on my own, without any help from the big C?  I don’t really know the answer to this.  So many people will have caffeine before their race anyway, not to improve their performance, but as part of their morning routine.  Then again, I’m not competing against them; I’m competing against me.

STOP! That’s enough of this seriousness.  For some fun, check out this cool thing I found while I was looking up the caffeine content in energy gel.  It’s a calculator that tells you how many cups of your favorite caffeinated beverage it would take to kill you!  Hooray!



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  1. Holy crap.. I’m afraid to look at that calculator.. hahaha. I say go sans the yerba mate also– you’ve never needed it before, and you know your body pretty well. I’m down with the emergency backup supply of C if needed. Now excuse me while I jump in a pool of coffee.
    .-= Mel @ She Runs Brooklyn´s last blog ..How to Be Productive on Saturday =-.

  2. I’m not totally sure about fresh ground Yerba, but I know the packets you can get at the store contain 1/4 the amount of caffeine a cup of coffee does. I also notice the difference after I have a cup, I notice a spike in energy, but I don’t have the slow tiredness that comes after it, so maybe it would work for me. Good thing you experimented before your race day.
    .-= Caleb´s last blog ..Smoothie Tuesday – Mango Banana Bliss =-.

  3. It would take 87 cups of coffee to kill me. Whew! I was getting nervous for a second there, but luckily I can’t even imagine drinking that much coffee.

  4. That calculator is so funny! Good think I hardly drink any caffine! I totally agree with you about relying on the “drug” or enchancer, You have worked so hard you don’t need that to get you through!
    .-= natalie´s last blog ..Green Monsters =-.

  5. My favorite part about the calculator was hitting the ‘kill me’ button. It seemed oddly harsh.
    Good news, I would need 209 more cups of tea to kill me today.
    *Whew* That was a close one.

  6. I LOVE yerba mate. I’ve been drinking it every morning for about a year or so now. Guayaki is my favorite brand, though fairly expensive. Whole Foods recently began offering it’s own yerba mate, but it’s much weaker and not nearly as tasty.
    .-= Ellen´s last blog ..Brunch Part Deux… =-.

    • Hey Ellen, thanks for your comment. It reminded me that I didn’t really mention how it tasted, and it really was good. It reminded me a lot of some of the more expensive green teas I’ve tried. Kind of grassy but in a good way. And like I said, I did like how it made me feel other than when I was running.

      I haven’t been drinking much coffee, but I’m thinking of replacing some of it with yerba mate because I enjoyed it so much.

  7. Thanks for being the guinea pig and giving an honest review. That is one more thing I won’t consider taking. What did you take from the Disney Marathon expo?

    • Robin, I’m not sure what brand the caffeine pills were. They were vanilla flavored though. Certainly you shouldn’t try yerba mate on race day without having tested it beforehand, but don’t let my experience prevent you from ever trying it. I think it’s just that caffeine and running don’t work together for me. But lots of others report improved endurance from caffeine.

  8. Interesting. I think I’d do some major puking if I took caffine before running! Glad you tried it out before the race.
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..Weekend Wedding =-.

  9. I think you’ve got the right idea with the Mate (or any supplement, for that matter)… If you don’t notice a difference, why bother!? Not to say that it’s BAD for you to do (I’m willing to try anything Brendan Brazier tells me to do at least once too).

    Your body is smart and if you’re listening to it it will let you know what it needs, and it sounds like yours is saying “drugs? who needs em!”
    Good luck with the training!
    .-= Kristen (Friends With Salad)´s last blog ..“If past-me could see present-me, she wouldn’t believe her eyes…” =-.

  10. i’ve been thinking about this too – whether i want to grab some coffee before running or not. i haven’t quite decided yet. all i know is i am going to have to allow at least a couple hours beforehand if i drink something!

    ohhh i am checking that calculator out right now 🙂
    .-= Holly (The Healthy Everythingtarian)´s last blog ..Fall Makes Me Happy =-.

  11. I’ve been wondering about Yerba Mate since reading Thrive! I’ve seen it but have been skeptical, only because I’ve kicked the coffee habit thanks to Brendan. (His stimulating foods theory that leads to food cravings later in the day totally hit the nail on the head for me.) I did drink coffee before my half marathon a few weeks ago. I’m not afraid of a little performance improving caffeine on race day! 😉 I figure hey, it’s an excuse to drink a cuppa the good stuff and if lets me put the pedal to the medal, it’s just a bonus.

    What a hilarious calculator – shew I can still have my 82 cups of coffee in the morning and be ok!
    .-= Alison´s last blog ..Orgasmic Birth =-.

  12. I used to do coffee before every run, but it messes up my stomach too much on long runs.
    I find the best thing that ensures energy through a long run, is a good night’s sleep beforehand.
    .-= Angie´s last blog ..For Jewelyn =-.

  13. Great review and thanks for your honesty! I would rather not resort to supplements of any kind.

    I am a coffee drinker but since most of the races I do are early in the morning, I usually wait to have my coffee afterwards so I can relax and enjoy it (and sometimes warm up if it was a cold run).
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Day 8: Marching on =-.

  14. I am currently trying to lose at least 20 lbs. in 1 month. My current weight is 230 lbs (im 5″11.5 ft.) I am going to the gym regularly and am on a diet (I eat whole grains, protein, and stop eating after 7PM). I take thermogenics (OxyElitePro) and GNC Sport MultiVitamins. Could I add yerbaMate Tea to my diet to help? If so, how and when?

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