New studies are showing that caffeine could be the most beneficial, legal performance-boosting substance out there. But there’s a catch.
True confession; I love a good cup of coffee. I never used to drink coffee thanks to youthful exuberance and the regular eight hours of sleep I got every night. But fast-forward a decade and how things have changed.
Chalk it up to age or far fewer hours of quality sleep and my resolve that I need not consume coffee in order to be bubbling with energy all day has long since faded. It’s an admission I hear regularly from clients as they sheepishly cop to downing cup after cup of coffee to get them through their day. For those reading this, abashedly nodding your head and recognizing yourself as a fellow (gasp) “coffee drinker,” raise your mug proudly because that cup of steaming dark roasted beans could make you a better athlete.
Caffeine, the source of coffee’s ergogenic powers, is the reason so many of us seek it out. As it turns out, caffeine doesn’t just put the pep in our step to get out of the door in the morning or keep us from dozing off during a boring mid-morning meeting. Caffeine is one of the few readily available legal drugs that has been proven to improve athletic performance. With the plethora of products (nutritional and otherwise) on the market that claim they will make us run farther, bike faster and jump higher, caffeine ranks among the few that actually delivers.
Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant found in tea, coffee and cacao plants. When ingested, caffeine works to stave off drowsiness by binding with receptors in the brain. In doing so, caffeine blocks another compound, adenosine, from binding to these sites, thereby preventing adenosine from exerting its sleep-inducing effects. Additionally, caffeine stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, providing a surge of energy in the body. More energy is a nice perk when it comes to getting through a long day, but is that boost enough to truly clock a new PR?
The good news? It is, and we have the studies to prove it.
Another thing that adds to caffeine’s performance benefits is its ability to help the body save glycogen. Glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate in our muscle and liver, can easily be exhausted during endurance exercise. However, research has found that caffeine decreases the body’s reliance on glycogen during exercise by increasing the ability to mobilize and burn fat for energy. Increasing the body’s ability to utilize fat even when exercising at a high intensity is like the Holy Grail for most endurance athletes, as it allows them to push hard late in a race when glycogen stores are typically depleted.
As any experienced athlete knows, the mental challenge of pushing through fatigue can be more difficult than the physical fatigue itself. Our bodies are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, but it can be all too easy to succumb to the urge to slow down or stop when things get tough. This may be what makes caffeine the ultimate ergogenic aid.
Recent research has focused on caffeine’s effect on perceived exertion and performance. A study out of Melbourne, Australia, on highly trained cyclists and triathletes found that those who consumed caffeine prior to a two-hour steady-state cycling test reported lower rates of perceived exertion. Researchers then went one step further, having the cyclists complete a time trial during which those dosed with caffeine outperformed their non-caffeinated cohort by over three percent. This result is consistent with a meta-analysis that reviewed 21 studies examining the effect of caffeine on time trial performance. That analysis found an average of a 3.2 percent improvement in endurance performance.
Until recently many of the studies examining caffeine and athletic performance used only male athletes as test subjects, raising the question: Can female athletes benefit from caffeine too? Ladies, you can breathe a sigh of relief because a study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, in June 2019, determined that women get just as big of an edge. In this study, Australian researchers found that the effect of caffeine on endurance cyclists was the same for men and women when consumed at a dose of 3 grams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. This finding suggests that prior studies demonstrating the ergogenic properties of caffeine are also applicable to women.
One major hang up for athletes when it comes to caffeine is concern about dehydration.
Yes, it’s true that caffeine is a diuretic and by definition a diuretic is a substance that increases the body’s production of urine. However, urinating more doesn’t necessarily translate to dehydration. Think about it logically: If you drink a large volume of water then you’ll urinate more, yet that water isn’t dehydrating you. Studies have shown that moderate consumption of caffeine-containing beverages does not result in fluid loss in excess of the amount consumed.
So how much do we need? Most of the referenced studies used controlled doses of caffeine in pill form to allow for careful control of the dosage used. Fortunately for those who prefer their caffeine in coffee form, subsequent studies found coffee to be just as effective as a caffeine supplement.
Studies showing a positive effect on performance found that doses of 3-6 mg/kg of caffeine before and during exercise were most effective. Considering the average cup of coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine, this means a 150-pound athlete seeking to consume the recommended amount of caffeine prior to exercise would need to have two to four cups of coffee.
If you’re sold on the idea of using caffeine, but coffee just isn’t your drink of choice, fear not—there are plenty of alternatives out there. Caffeine pills, gels, gummies or other caffeinated products can help you reap the same rewards. Also, studies suggest that the strategies of taking caffeine prior to and during exercise are equally effective.
However, there is one big caveat to these recommendations: To get the most bang for one’s buck, athletes should abstain from caffeine for at least a week prior to competition. For regular coffee users this could induce symptoms of withdrawal like drowsiness, irritability and headaches.
The very idea of a full week without caffeine could be just enough to turn even the most dedicated athlete off. On the flip side, athletes who do not regularly consume caffeine should be careful when it comes to ingesting even small doses on the day of an event as a lower tolerance may result in jitteriness, rapid heart rate and digestive issues; hardly performance-boosting side effects. That means, just like with any change to one’s pre-event or racing protocol, practice makes perfect. Experiment with the timing and dose to find what works best for you so there are no surprises when it matters most.
Finally, it is possible to go overboard when it comes to caffeine. The NCAA considers caffeine a banned substance, placing a limit of urinary caffeine concentration of 15 micrograms per milliliter. This far exceeds the amount recommended, equating to about six to eight cups of coffee consumed within two to three hours of competition. Short of guzzling an entire pot of coffee, most would find it near impossible to consume that much caffeine in such a short time frame and the side effects would likely be more harmful than helpful.
It seems almost too good to be true that a legal, readily available and safe substance can truly enhance performance, but the science says it all. Coffee drinkers everywhere can now feel vindicated.
Jamie Sheahan is the Director of Nutrition at The Edge in South Burlington. Jamie holds a Master of Science in Dietetics from the University of Vermont, where she serves as an adjunct professor of sports nutrition. Jamie has run over 40 marathons in addition to several ultra marathons.
Featured Photo Caption: Coffee drinkers can rejoice. But if you plan to use caffeine as part of your pre-race routine, there are a few things you should know.