Caffeine and Athletic Performance

Caffeine and Athletic Performance 101

Sport Nutrition

Will caffeine help boost your athletic performance, or is it actually more likely to hinder it?

 When it comes to sport supplements, there are few products out there more heavily used, studied, or debated than caffeine. For caffeine fans, the market of caffeine-containing products is ever-expanding with something for just about everyone. This means athletes can choose to get their caffeine in a wide variety of different forms- from caffeine pills to pre-workout powders, energy gels, drinks, gum or just plain old coffee. Caffeine as a performance enhancer is relatively inexpensive, and seems to work for the people who swear by it. But, is caffeine the right supplement for every athlete? What amount of caffeine is safe, effective, and won’t come with a whole host of unwanted side effects?

The basics: What is caffeine?

Caffeine is a stimulant, and actually the most commonly used psychoactive drug worldwide. It works by stimulating the central nervous system (the brain) to increase alertness, enhance mood, and reduce fatigue. It is naturally found in a variety of plants such as coffee beans, cocoa beans, and tea leaves. In fact, there are about 60 plant species that we know of that naturally contain caffeine!

Does caffeine really help boost athletic performance?

The first question that needs answering is does caffeine even work? Well, yes! In fact caffeine is one of the most widely studied sport supplements around, and has been shown to boost athletic performance via several pathways. First, it stimulates the brain so we experience less fatigue while exercising. Brain fatigue very quickly leads to muscle fatigue particularly during endurance exercise so caffeine can give us a little pep in our step as the miles add up. The second is that it can reduce the sensation of muscle fatigue or muscle pain, which allows athletes to push themselves during more intense exercise. Caffeine also increases mental alertness which can improve reaction time and things like hand-eye coordination.

Studies on caffeine for athletes generally use anywhere between 3-6mg/kg of an athlete’s body weight. So, for a 150lb person (68.2kg), that is somewhere between 200 and 400mg. If you’re not a regular caffeine user you’ll likely get some performance benefit at the lower dose. If you already drink coffee throughout the day you may need a little more to see a benefit, but higher doses can mean running into some unwanted side effects (read on to find out what those might be!).

When should an athlete take caffeine?

Pre-workout caffeine

Taking caffeine before a workout is the best way to give it enough time to start taking effect before starting a training session or competition. General recommendations are to take caffeine anywhere from 30-60 minutes prior to starting your workout. Being a stimulant and all caffeine is also known to increase GI motility so if you do take caffeine pre-workout, give yourself enough time for a trip to the bathroom before heading out the door!

Intra-workout caffeine

Another popular time to use caffeine is during long workouts. If you’re exercising for hours at a time the effects of any pre-workout caffeine you may have used will begin to wear off (the duration of action of caffeine is about 3-4 hours). Taking a little extra caffeine to boost the second half of a long workout can help stave off fatigue. You can do this by splitting the dose you would normally use into two, taking some before your workout and some during.

What about caffeine post-workout?

By this point you’ve probably had enough caffeine for one day! But if you do find that your energy levels are low after a long-workout it may be due to low calorie or fluid intake post-exercise. Make sure you’re re-fueling and re-hydrating appropriately rather than reaching for another cup of coffee. Consistently getting enough sleep is also a critical step for any athlete who wants to perform their best!

How much caffeine is in beverages like coffee, tea, or energy drinks?

One of the most commonly ‘googled’ questions when it comes to caffeine is “how much caffeine is in a cup of coffee?”.

A standard 8-oz cup of coffee contains about 80-120mg caffeine (depending on exactly how it is brewed). Tea varies depending on variety and steep time, but a black tea for example contains about the same amount as your standard cup of coffee. Steeping your tea for less time will also reduce the caffeine content. For energy drinks it can be trickier to tell the exact dose. This is because they may contain both caffeine and several other caffeine-containing plants. A few examples include yerba mate, guarana, or taurine (which enhances caffeine’s effects), making the total amount of caffeine (or the effect it might have), unknown. Can sizes for energy drinks have also gotten much larger over the years so they can contain some pretty hefty doses!

How much caffeine is in pre-workout supplements?

The amount of caffeine in pre-workout supplements varies a LOT. Some pre-workout supplements are actually stimulant-free and contain no caffeine at all. Others may have several hundred mg in a single scoop. The best thing any athlete can do is figure out their personal dosing range, and check the labels on products to see if they’re within reason from a dose and cost perspective. For example, you may get more for your money simply purchasing plain caffeine pills vs an expensive pre-workout powder that requires you to take multiple scoops to get the right dose. For my personal pick scroll to the bottom of this article!

How much caffeine is too much?

Well, it actually depends. Personal tolerance to caffeine is certainly a big factor, and some people might experience negative symptoms from caffeine ingestion even at lower doses. Common side effects can include nausea, ‘jitters’, anxiety, headache, insomnia, or elevated heart rate. For athletes too much caffeine can also mean GI distress, which will definitely impair performance rather than enhance it.

A golden rule of thumb for athletes is to never try anything new on the day of a competition, so if you aren’t used to using caffeine definitely practice with it before using it on the big day! Over time negative side effects from caffeine like GI discomfort can diminish as your body adapts and adjusts.

Genetic differences in the pathways that metabolize caffeine in our bodies can impact how quickly caffeine is removed from our system. For people who are ‘slower metabolizers’, this can reduce their ability to safely consume caffeine. These same folks may also not experience the same performance enhancing benefits that their ‘fast metabolizing’ counterparts may see. For athletes, knowing their genetic response to caffeine can help them determine whether or not it’s a worthwhile supplement to use. Nutrigenomic testing can actually tell you more about the relationship between caffeine and your genes!

That being said, according to the FDA rapid consumption of about 1200mg of caffeine can contribute to toxicity symptoms like seizures and is definitely life-threatening. So, if you’re using multiple caffeine-containing products in a day make sure you’re not getting too close to this amount. Most health authorities agree however that 400mg per day is generally safe.

Who should not use caffeine?

It is recommended that children avoid caffeine use (including youth athletes), and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should limit caffeine to no more than 200mg per day. If you have heart conditions, high blood pressure, or are unsure if caffeine is safe for you, always check with your doctor before trying any new supplement!

So, what’s the bottom line on caffeine and athletic performance?

Caffeine is a popular performance-enhancing supplement for athletes and has strong evidence to back up it’s use. As an athlete, timing your caffeine intake as part of your pre-workout nutrition strategy can help you get the most out of it, and avoid any unwanted side effects. Proper dosing is also an important consideration so always read labels to find out how much caffeine you may or may not be getting. Sticking with plain old coffee or tea is also a great, easy option. That said, caffeine isn’t appropriate for everyone and knowing which genotype you have will help you determine if caffeine is right for you!

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