Back in the ’70s, a young small-town distance runner named Todd Carmichael read a magazine article that changed his life. “[Legendary marathoner] Bill Rodgers was talking about the benefits of coffee,” says Carmichael, who developed an appetite for adventure early in life and was looking for a way to increase his running endurance. “The next morning I drank my first pot. And it turns out, in so many ways, he was right.”
This may not seem like a big deal today, but in the ’70s and even the ’80s, caffeine— what Rodgers was really talking about, perhaps unknowingly— was seen as something of an evil, due in no small part to its association with soft drinks and the (laughable) fact that many researchers hadn’t taken into account that many of the subjects who took part in coffee studies were also smokers.
Modern, more competent research, however, is setting the record straight; to date, caffeine’s scientifically proven benefits include the ability to extend endurance, enhance performance, increase testosterone, decrease cortisol, boost strength, sharpen focus, and bolster memory retention. A Spanish study conducted earlier this year was even able to show that caffeine can affect the body’s circadian rhythms, allowing us to train early in the morning with the same intensity as we would later in the day, when the body’s neuromuscular system is fully activated.
Everyone from cyclists to weightlifters stands to benefit from caffeine, and the vehicles for caffeine consumption are numerous. But, apart from caffeine, coffee has been shown to have some unique benefits of its own, with studies linking it to reduced risk of heart failure and certain kinds of cancer. Even coffee’s aroma can help us de-stress, according to an ’08 study on rats published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
It was coffee that enabled Carmichael to combine his dual passions for adventure and endurance. In 2008, he became the first American to trek across Antarctica on foot, solo and unassisted, from the coast to the South Pole; and at press time, he was preparing to become the first man to traverse Nevada’s Death Valley under the same circumstances. “People who drink coffee have a tendency to be in better health,” he says. “It elevates what’s possible.”
Catch Carmichael on his Travel Channel show, Dangerous Grounds, Tuesdays at 11 p.m. ET/10 p.m. CT.