Caffeine has been show to consistently improve exercise performance, and up until 2004 it was on WADA’s banned list. Although we think mostly of coffee, caffeine is found in many foods and beverages, and so monitoring and testing can be a problem. Caffeine is also metabolised at different rates in people, and so a simple blood test wasn’t accurate in determining athlete usage patterns.
So, knowing caffeine is a powerful substance that can improve performance, it is important to know how to make the most of this legal stimulant.
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in over 60 different plant species, however it is actually classified as a drug because it does not have any nutritional value.
Currently, about 75% of all athletes consume some form of caffeine before competition. Caffeine was previously a WADA-prohibited substance but then removed in 2003 to prevent athletes from testing positive for drinking cola or coffee. The threshold for caffeine then was equivalent to about 4 cups of coffee.
How Caffeine Works
Caffeine appears to be most effective in endurance activities, including running and cycling. It doesn’t seem to be as effective in strength or power sports. Also, if you are an experienced and trained athlete, caffeine has impressive benefits. These benefits are less pronounced in beginners or those who are untrained.
Musculoskeletal System: Caffeine results in vasodilation which is an expansion of blood vessels. This results in an improvement in your body’s fuel utilisation and sparing of your precious muscle glycogen stores.
Nervous System: Caffeine helps to decrease your perception of effort during exercise and activities requiring your concentration. The caffeine affects your brain to improve focus and energy and alertness.
Fat Burning: Caffeine increases and lipolysis which is your body’s ability to break down fat
Dosage and timing of Caffeine intake
Most studies show that caffeine will have a performance enhancing effect at a dose of 400-600mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to approximately 4-6 cups of coffee. Importantly, the timing of intake – either before or during an event – doesn’t seem to matter. Having all your caffeine in one go, or spreading it out will give you the same effect. It’s also important to note that taking caffeinated ‘defizzed’ soft drinks during races will have a dose much less than is shown to have a positive effect on your performance.
Tolerance to Caffeine
It is common for athletes to go ‘cold turkey’ on caffeine in the week leading up to a race, with the aim to get the most out of the caffeine effect on race day. But recent research has shown this is not necessary. The results showed that regular use of caffeine does not reduce the performance effects of pre-exercise caffeine supplementation, provided the dose you take before exercise is higher than your regular intake.
Side effects of Caffeine
Most people are familiar with the ‘coffee shakes’, including an increased heart rate, sleeplessness, irritability and increased anxiety. And there is the problem of needing to urinate more during a race for some! Note that people who are prone to anxiety should avoid high doses of caffeine. Using caffeine later in the day can also disrupt sleep, which can have a negative effect on training and performance in itself.
Used at recommended doses, caffeine is a fairly safe supplement, however it should not be used if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure.
Be mindful that caffeine is prohibited when used in combination with some other substances such as Ephedrine, which is a stimulant found in many diet supplements to increase energy, decrease appetite and increase metabolism without exercise. Caffeine/ephedrine combinations have led to serious side effects including serious heart arrhythmias and death. Use of ephedrine products and elevated levels of urinary caffeine are prohibited by WADA.
The Bottom Line on Caffeine
Caffeine has been shown to result in major improvements in performance for endurance athletes. Supplements seem to be most effective, and also more accurate as the dose can be measured. However a regular cup of coffee prior to exercise in a trained athlete can have a powerful, positive effect on performance.
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