Can Caffeine Improve Athletic Performance?
By Kevin Masson MSc, CSCS, CPT, USAW, FMS
The number one stimulant in the world isn’t a steroid or cocaine—it’s caffeine. Looking collectively at the western world, research suggests that an incredible four out of five people consume caffeine in some form every day. Many turn to it to boost their daily production, so it is not surprising that it is believed caffeine can enhance sports performance. In fact, caffeine has even been banned in the Olympics and the NCAA in the past because of the edge it is believed to give sports players. Therefore, we should dive intothe science behind how caffeine works to enhance sports performance, the advantages that it gives competitors,and what athletes should know before they decide if caffeine is a good way to boost their performance.
Scientists do agree on one thing—caffeine is an ergogenic aid or a substance that can provide heightened speed and stamina after consumption. Most athletes are using this substance to their advantage, it is estimated that as many as 75% of elite athletes around the world turn to caffeine to give them a competitive edge. There are even reports of athletes truly committed to giving their performance that extra energy to stay at the top of the pack—Chris Hoy, a six-time gold medalist, and Scottish cyclist, is said to have brought along his own coffee grinder and machine to every sporting event he competed in—even the 2012 London Games (Kuzma, 2014).
How to Take it
Caffeine is mainly taken as a drink served hot or cold in today’smainstream coffee shops such as Starbucks and other brands. Caffeine can be supplemented through popular beverages, like Coffee, Tea and Energy Drinks, but it can also be taken in the form of a pill. Many of caffeine’s effects includesfat burning, strength benefits, and euphoria, are subject to tolerance, and may not occur in people used to consumingcaffeine, no matter how large the dose is. The average amount ofcaffeine in a cup of coffee is around 100mg which is considered to be mild. Caffeine dosages should be tailored to individuals. If you are new to caffeine supplements, start with a 100mg dose. Typically, 200mg of caffeine is used for fat-burning supplementation, while acute strength increases occur at higher doses, 500mg and above. Overall researchers tend to use a dosage range of 4-6mg/kg bodyweight
Restrictions on Caffeine in Sports
Though attitudes have changed on caffeine and its use by athletes, not everyone has always approved of its use. One of the first times caffeine was brought into the spotlight in sports was in 1984, when caffeine was banned from the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. The ban would last for two decades. It did not bar athletes from consuming caffeine completely, but they could be disqualified from competitions if their urine had more than 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter. The problem was that the testing for caffeine was not precise, especially considering people may have anywhere from 1-3% of the caffeine that they consume pass through the body and into the urine. Even a person who did pass 3% of the caffeine into their urine could still consume a fair amount of caffeine. For example, a 140-pound athlete could consume 576mg of caffeine and not pass the legal limit—that’s as much as four lattes from Starbucks (Kuzma, 2014).
According to the most recent research, however, the edge that athletes experience after consuming caffeine isn’t nearly as intense as it was once thought—the margin is just 3-6% improvement. While this small amount can make a huge difference, especially among elite athletes, it is the same advantage that a runner gains after eating carbohydrates during a long race. Athletes also do not need to consume nearly as much caffeine as experts thought. Rather than slamming back several lattes or popping a handful of caffeine pills, a single cup of coffee can be beneficial to athletic performance. This means that even though some athletes turn to a little caffeine to give them a competitive edge, it is usually only a small part of a much larger regimen to ensure they are performing their best (Kuzma, 2014).
How Caffeine Effects Sports Performance
Caffeine has numerous applications in sports use. One of the ways that it works in sports is the same as it works for the average Joe enjoying their coffee as they go about their daily tasks. It delays feelings of fatigue in the body. The mind and body get tired when the body sends out the neurotransmitter adenosine, which is a sleep-related neurotransmitter. There are receptors assigned to detecting adenosine and, when they do, it creates the feeling of fatigue. Caffeine works by blocking thesereceptors that detect adenosine, and therefore stopingyou from feeling tired (Kuzma, 2014).
Pre-workout caffeine supplementation can also reduce poor training performance due to sleep deprivation reported researchers in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Although sleep deprivation led to large decreases in total workout load in this study, sleep-deprived subjects who took caffeine performed as well as those who were rested. Yet non-sleep-deprived individuals who received caffeine performed better than all other groups.
In addition to testing the use of caffeine and how it affects mental focus and fighting off fatigueduring sports, it has been tested in the areas of endurance, strength and short-term performance. Most scientists agree that there is only a minimal impact, if any, on short-term exercise. Though athleteslike sprinters might ingest caffeine prior to their race, it has less effect than consuming carbohydrates. However, it is very beneficial in long-term performance and endurance. One study gave one group of cyclists a moderate dose of caffeine, with two other groups (a placebo and a control group). The cyclists performed for an hour and the result was that those who had ingested the caffeine had 4-5% better performance than those who did not. The same study found that caffeine without water (in the form of powder or a caffeine pill) was more effective than caffeine from a cup of coffee. It has also been found that there is not a significant difference in performance when considering caffeine amounts—a lower dose has the same effect as a moderate dose (Evolution Nutrition, 2016).
One of the reasons that it is believed caffeine improves endurance is because of the way that it mobilizes fat in the body. In the average person, the body burns glycogen to create energy. Glycogen is a fuel source, that isstored in the liver and muscles of thebody and isthe second fastest energy source for us to use. The problem is, once glycogen stores are depleted, the athlete starts to feel fatigued and may not perform as well as they did at the beginning of the athletic event (Kattouf, 2015).
This is the reason that marathon runners may consume carbohydrates while they are training. The additional carbs can be burned as fuel during the race. This means they do not have to worry about feeling exhausted or “hitting the wall” before they finish, because the body is more adequately prepared with fuel for the race.
When athletes consume coffee it mobilizes fat stores in the body, or in other words, your body burns fat for fuel, which delays the depletion of glycogen stores, allowing you to go a little longer and push a little further through that workout or athletic event.In other words, caffeine can helpthe athlete perform more repetition during times of muscle endurance, push themselves harder for longer periods, and improve their overall performance (Kattouf, 2015).
Regarding the performance of strength athletes, the information from studies has been mixed. The general conclusion shows that there may be an increase in performance for muscular endurance but that the effect on power and strength come from the release of noradrenaline, adrenaline, and dopamine, giving the user a feeling of energy, wakefulness, and well-being. (Evolution Nutrition, 2016).
For this reason, pre-workout supplements do a very good job in stimulating these hormones to give you the effect of being “wired” with a sharp focus on the task ahead.
Why Caffeine is Banned/Limited in Some Sports
Even though numerous studies have been conducted on how exactly caffeine affects performance, the jury is still out on if it truly gives sucha competitive edge, and if at allshould itbe banned in sports. This is reflected in the numerous times that caffeine has been added to and removed from various ‘banned drug’ lists for sporting events. As new evidence and research shifts opinion on the use of caffeine as a sports stimulant, so do the attitudes about how ‘fair’ it is for use during sporting events. It was once banned for use by Olympic athletes, with limits being placed on the amount of caffeine they were allowed to have in their system during an Olympic sporting event. In 2004, however, these restrictions were lifted (Kuzma, 2014).
Even though the ban in the Olympics was lifted, there are still some sports where it is not allowed. For example, the NCAA (National College Athletes Association) added caffeine to their banned drug list for the 2018 sports year (NCAA, 2017). Many of those who support caffeine being kept on a banned list believe that it can hurt players in the long run. The NCAA, for example, cites their decision because health risksassociated with high doses of caffeine, especially for long-term use. This includes things like anxiety, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues and even irregular heartbeat whichhas the potential of causing death (Kuzma, 2014). One could argue, however, that asingle cup of coffee discovered to enhance performance cannot cause these severe side effects of long-term use.
Additionally, it must be brought to attention that athletes may not even be consuming caffeine intentionally. Caffeine comes in more forms than energy drinks, coffee, and caffeine pills. It can also be found in chocolate, tea, and soft drinks, just to name a few. Food labelsdonot have to listcaffeineeven though those food items may very well contain caffeine some sources include guarana berries, yaupon holly, guayusa, and yerba mate (Coffee & Health, 2014). This explains why there have been limits placed on caffeine consumption for sports, rather than banning it altogether. It was to distinguish between those that consume caffeine to gain an advantage over their competitors and those who consumed caffeine as part of a daily habit (Human Kinetics, 2017).
If you didn’t know already,I was an NCAA DivisionI strength coach and I cannot countthe amount oftimes we had meetings about pre-workout supplements with our athletes, trulycrazy. We actually had one of our athletes suspended after testing positive for stimulants found in one of theirpre-workouts. I cannot stress this enough to student-athletes, even if it is sold in a local GNC, do not take it if it has a banned substance on it!
Common Opinions on Caffeine Use by Elite Athletes
One study, after the ban was lifted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), was conducted byadministering a questionnaire to 140 triathletes. These athletes were dispersed among 15 different countries and included many elite competitors, including competitors from the 2005 Ironman Triathlon. By investigating the results of the questionnaire, it becomes clear that athletes have a ‘pro-caffeine’ attitude. An astonishing 84% reported that they ingested caffeine to boost their focus during the competition, while 73% reported believing caffeine could enhance their stamina. Surprisingly, coffee was not the most popular way of ingesting caffeine—24% experienced positive results using caffeinated gels, while 65% reported positive feelings after drinking cola before a sports competition (Human Kinetics, 2017).
While it was clear that the athletes from the sample had positive feelings and experiences after ingesting caffeine, there was a lot of confusion regarding the legality of the substance. What they did know about caffeine and performance either came from experimenting on their own results, journal articles or magazines,or fellow athletes. Additionally, although 89% of these athletes planned on using caffeine for future performances, 25% were unsure of how ‘legal’ it was to do so. Interestingly enough, the athletes who admitted to consuming the most caffeine were aware of its status—they ingested an average of 415 mg of caffeine, compared to those who dosed around 222mg of caffeine (Human & Kinetics, 2017).
Even though it is no longer illegal, just restricted in some sports arenas, caffeine still remains a supplement of interest. Athletes submit to testing before each competition to monitor for aids that might be improving performance. Caffeine remains among those tested, more as a way to detect trends in usage than to discourage use however (Evolution Nutrition, 2016).
Legality is not the only ‘gray’ area regarding caffeine consumption. It turns out, there are many misconceptions regarding its use for athletic performance. One regards caffeine’s status as a diuretic or a dehydrating factor. The truth is that when caffeine is consumed as coffee or any other caffeinated beverage, especially by people who drink it regularly, it does count as fluids in the body. Even the United States military has conducted studies on this—wondering just how much caffeine troops need to stay awake and primed for battle while keeping good levels of hydration in dry desert areas. While extremely high doses can be detrimental to overall levels of hydration through the day, the amount that athletes can legally (and effectively) use for training does not even come close to this amount (Clark, 2005).
Practical Advice for Athletes Using Caffeine for Performance
Instead of focusing on restricting caffeine, when there are much more dangerous substances that have worse long-term risks, it may be better to advise athletes on the best way to consume caffeine for sports endurance. Some guidelines that athletes should follow include (Kuzma, 2014):
- Never try it for the first time during competition – If athletes do choose to consume caffeine during a competition, they should use it during practice to see how it affects them. This is especially true in high-stake performance when athletes should be sure they are competing at their best.
- Timing is everything – The effects of caffeine are usually felt 45 minutes to an hour after ingestion. This is how long it takes to pass through the digestive tract and be absorbed into the bloodstream. This means athletes should drink caffeine about an hour before they perform. Instead of doubling up on coffee for later events (drinking a cup in the morning and then a cup before the performance), some experts recommend that athletes skip the morning dose and consume their caffeine closer to the time of their athletic performance.
- Remember that caffeine is not a miracle supplement – Caffeine might give you a competitive edge, but it is only a small fraction of the things athletes must do to give their performance a boost. It is not a substitute for proper hydration and nutrition, as well as, being familiar with the equipment and regular training.
Something else to consider regarding caffeine’s effectiveness is the amount that athletes already consume daily. The stimulant effect of caffeine does not work as well for people who are used to its effects. Athletes may want to abstain from caffeine for this reason, aside from part of their training regimen or when they are preparing just before their athletic event (Clark, 2005). Finally, even though many experts recommend consuming caffeine just an hour before a performance, athletes should remember that the effects come in anywhere from three to six hours later. Some professionals even recommend consuming caffeine 2-3 hours before a performance, so that it has a chance to mobilize the fats and make it ready to be burned for energy. This is because the first 15 minutes of the activity is when the body needs to preserve its glycogen stores the most (Karrouf, 2015).
Even though caffeine has been analyzed and studied for effectiveness in sports performance for decades, there is still much research to be done. One of the best things an athletes who isinterested in caffeine for performance can do is train with the use of caffeine to see how it affects them. Try it out an hour before exercising, as well as three hours before an intense workout regimen. Additionally, athletes should keep in mind that there is a maximum amount of caffeine that can boost performance, and more is not always the better choice. In fact, to prevent jitteriness, edginess, and potential irregular heartbeat, athletes should stick to the amount that works best for them individually to increase their performance. Additionally, it is important to stay current on the information regarding caffeine in performance and if it has been banned in certain competitions. Always adhere to the guidelines provided by sports organizations to prevent disqualification.
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