Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's Time to Make a Coffee Run

I really enjoyed this article. It covered many sources but remained clear and focused. It made strong claims about research that I think few people know about.

The lead was very effective, I think. The quotes are powerful and descriptive, and we get the punch when we find out this doesn't just work for one person, it's proven scientifically to work for all athletes. I thought it was surprising that caffeine is one of the "best-studied performance enhancers." Kolata supports the claim well by describing all of the testing that's gone on in several sports, but keeps it snappy. ("The answers are yes and yes and yes and yes.") Kolata brings in an expert opinion to support the claim with especially definitive quotes.

There is a nice explanatory paragraph that could have been difficult to read, but instead uses simple language to say how caffeine provides endurance. I thought Kolata should have defined the word glycogen, though. The next explanatory paragraph is also simple and provides even more ways that caffeine helps the body during exercise.

Kolata brings in another expert source to tell us that the amount of caffeine needed to improve performance doesn't necessarily have to be huge. Another expert tells us that too much hurts performance. Then the article quotes "Mike Perry, a friend." Since his quote came directly after Johnson, I assumed he was Johnson's friend. Perry at first provides a contrasting opinion, which gives the article a little more depth as opposed to it just being an ode to the wonders of caffeine.

I found Perry's experiment on himself to be a very interesting part of the article, since he didn't just say that he felt like there was a difference when he used caffeine, he actually had a placeboed experiment to back that claim. Perry was an everyman-turned-expert source. His statistics are impressive--his average time using caffeine was faster than his fastest time without it.

Then the article takes a turn that I really disliked in which Kolata used first person and told a story about her son. This took away from the professional tone of the article, I felt. I also realized that "Mike Perry, a friend" meant Mike Perry her friend. Kolata continues with a story about her running partner and soon the article has the feel of an anecdote ("We love coffee and probably have caffeine in our blood all the time except for the middle of the night"). I didn't like this shift in tone--if you're going to quote experts and set yourself up as an objective third party, do that. If you're going to write about you and your friends' experiments with caffeine as a performance-enhancer, do that, but don't try to mesh the two.

We return to the expert source from earlier in the article, who surprised me by saying that caffeine doesn't actually dehydrate athletes. This was something I believed. The doctor again is very adament ("there's no question about it) with his praise of caffeine as a performance enhancer. I wish that the article had ended there. However, Kolata goes on to describe how the doctor is actually a huge fan of coffee, and always has some before a race. I feel like this actually weakens his testimony as an expert source. We already have our human--that was Johnson from the lead. I felt like the doctor's forceful quotes throughout the article were weakened by including the fact that he thinks coffee is "heaven." When an expert says a study has shown that something is "unequivocal" it's usually surprising and something to take note of, but if this person just really loves coffee, he might be stretching the truth in favor of it. That's not necessarily what's going on, but the last bit made me lose faith in the rest of what he said.

There isn't a lot of timeliness to this article, but it reminded me of the IHSA's banning the use of high levels of caffeine as a stimulant and including it in drug testing. An unacceptable level of caffeine in urine is 15 micrograms/ml according to the IHSA Web site, but that doesn't mean much to me. I'm unclear as to whether the amounts discussed in the NY Times article could get a student athlete punished. This could be another angle to pursue in an article--in the NY Times it is portrayed as a performance-enhancer without consequences, but then why does the IHSA ban it?


  1. I agree with you, I liked this article but I didn't like the shift halfway through. It seems like a friend giving a friend advice and doesn't really convince me because I have not built up a friend-like trust with this author. I think the article would have been a lot more successful with some more convincing evidence. The author's main reason to believe that caffeine improves performance is that their friend conducted an experiment. For me, it hurts credibility to use friends and family as sources. I know the author has a doctor for an expert source but I feel like I'm not given enough proof to buy into the idea without seeing it for myself. Still, I am intrigued.

  2. This article was fresh and informing. All my life I have been told to avoid caffeinated beverages, yet this article promotes coffee and pop. The opening is catching, but is it relevant? Johnson uses caffine for his athletic boost, but in all reality, it was a mindset for him ("It may have been a huge placebo effect").

    I thought the author did an excellent job speaking to the audience through all the scientific details. We may not know how many milligrams of caffine are in our drinks, but we understand that two cans of pop can maximize our athletic potential.

    I agree that the author did go overboard by using a friend as a source. Perry may be knowledgeable, since he is almost a professional, but the author should not have introduced him as a friend. But I thought his own test was pretty neat. It was intersting to see how much more effective he was while taking caffeine. Other sources that should not have been included in the article are Stefan and Davis.

    I am also a little wary about the legalites of caffeine. The author is promoting "cheating" without really cheating. I think she should have eliminated her opinion in this section or should have eliminated it in entirety, since it digressed from the point of the article. But nonetheless, I found the results of caffeine on athletes to be very interesting.