Caffeine and athletic performance

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Having a cup of coffee first thing in the morning or to push through the mid-afternoon slump is a pretty standard thing for most people. Caffeine is a stimulant. It will give you a bit of buzz.

It makes sense that using caffeine to supercharge athletic performance.

What is Caffeine
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in leaves, nuts and seeds of numerous plants. Its widespread social acceptance means that many athletes consume caffeine regularly over the day in varying amounts from coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and, increasingly, from pre-workout supplements or caffeinated sports products.

Caffeine-containing beverages typically contain between 30-120mg of caffeine but this varies widely between products and brands.

Caffeine is becoming increasingly popular in sport to help improve performance and various caffeinated supplements and sports products are now being marketed to and consumed exclusively by athletes.

Caffeine and performance
The main performance benefits of caffeine appear to come from its influence on the central nervous system and resulting reduced perception of effort (exercise feels easier) and/or reduced perception of fatigue. 

Some other ways that caffeine can help improve mental and physical performance are as follows:

  • Caffeine can increase the body’s ability to burn fat via lipolysis, or the breakdown of stored fatty acids within the fat cells;
  • Caffeine has been shown to increase thermogenesis, or heat production, which helps you burn more calories;
  • Caffeine can raise endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness, giving you the exercise “buzz” that people often experience after working out;
  • Caffeine may also spare glycogen stores (carbohydrate stored within the muscles), primarily due to increased fat burning. This can enhance endurance performance.

Endurace exercise
Most of exercise/caffeine research is based on endurance training and performance. Historically, the most often cited benefit to consuming caffeine before a race or training activity was that it would increase the oxidation of fat, thus sparing muscle glycogen for when you really needed it, such as the final sprint to the finish line.

Maybe the caffeine simply makes exercise more tolerable, makes muscles work harder and better, and allows those exercising to do so harder, and for longer. Caffeine generally will give you a bit of a buzz. When taken prior to a workout, this “buzz” equates to an increased endorphin response to exercise.

So, if endorphins are high, exercise is more tolerable, even enjoyable.

The bottom line is that caffeine seems to boost athletic performance in endurance events, maybe through enhancing energy partitioning or an increase exercise induced endorphin response, make the activity more enjoyable.

Strength exercise
The effects of caffeine in sport aren’t limited to improving endurance. Research also indicates the benefits of caffeine in strength performance.

Whilst the results of studies are varied, they generally suggest that supplementation may help trained strength and power athletes.

This meta analysis, comparing 27 studies found that caffeine may improve leg muscle power by up to 7%, but had little effect on smaller muscle groups

Caffeine may also improve muscular endurance, including the amount of repetitions performed at a certain weight.

To summarise, most research indicates that caffeine may provide the most benefits for power-based activities that use large muscle groups, repetitions or circuits.

How to use caffeine for performance
Although early research was conducted using high doses of caffeine (6+ mg caffeine / kg body weight), more recent research indicates that lower doses can provide similar performance benefits with less negative side effects.

Individual responses to caffeine vary but typically doses in the range 1-3 mg caffeine per kg body weight are sufficient to improve performance (e.g. 70-210mg for a 70kg athlete).

Some experimenting may need to be done to determine the most beneficial timing protocol, which may include taking caffeine:

  • Pre-competition or exercise;
  • During competition or exercise;
  • A combination of both.

Potential side effects
High levels of caffeine intake can cause declines in performance through:

  • Increased heart rate;
  • Impaired fine motor control;
  • Anxiety and over-arousal;
  • Sleep disturbances;
  • Gastrointestinal upset.

Like any other supplement, it is important to trial smaller doses first in training activities prior to race day to assess individual tolerance and responses.

In Summary
The incorporation of caffeine into an athlete’s nutrition plan should be considered on an individual basis.

Caffeine is one of the most effective exercise performance supplements available. It is also very cheap and relatively safe to use.

Many studies have shown that caffeine can benefit endurance performance, high-intensity exercise and power sports.

The recommended dose varies by body weight, but is typically about 200–400 mg, taken 30–60 minutes before a workout.