Caffeine & Sports Performance

Many of us turn the kettle on to kick start the day with a cup of coffee so we’re probably all familiar with that caffeine pick-me-up but can caffeine also enhance your sports performance?

The use of caffeine to enhance sports performance was first studied by the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University in the 1970’s; there’s evidence to suggest it’s use as a performance aid predates this study but it’s only recently, with the removal of caffeine from the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) list of controlled substances in 2004, that there’s been a large increase in the number of caffeine based sports nutrition products.

A study completed in 2008 on UK Olympic athletes found that over 30% of track and field athletes and over 60% of cyclists use caffeine as a means to enhance sporting performance which gives some idea of how widespread it’s usage has become.

So should you be using it to? What are the benefits? How much should you take? And are there side affects to be aware of?

Who benefits and how?

Studies into caffeine and sports performance have primarily shown it’s of benefit for endurance athletes where it helps to increase stamina and therefore prolong time to exhaustion.

Exactly how caffeine achieves this is still subject to some debate, as caffeine affects the body in multiple ways it’s difficult to attribute the performance benefits to a single factor.

The theory most consistently proven is that caffeine encourages muscles to use energy from fat stores. By using energy from fat stores it delays the onset of muscle glycogen depletion which allows for prolonged exercise. There is also some evidence that caffeine alters your perception of effort levels and fatigue which may play an important psychological role in endurance based events.

In addition to its benefit on stamina caffeine also has the ability to increase mental focus. It acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system helping to quicken reactions and mental awareness which may be of benefit in some sports, for example, a study into caffeine use by tennis players showed increased speed and hitting accuracy.

How much and when?

The effect of caffeine varies by individual but most research suggests that benefits occur at fairly low levels (typically 1-3 mg per kilogram of body weigh) when taken before or during exercise. Higher doses are not likely to deliver any increased benefit and create more risk of adverse side affects.

Caffeine enters the bloodstream quickly so may provide some initial impact but its peak effect is typically between 1-3 hours after ingestion. Caffeine based sports nutrition products are therefore likely to have the biggest impact if taken up to an hour before exercise and then during exercise for events lasting longer than a couple of hours.

As your body can develop a caffeine tolerance, you may want to use products selectively for specific events rather than all the time to ensure maximum affect.

Caffeine and doping

In 2004 WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) removed caffeine from its list of prohibited substances. The reason for this decision was two fold, firstly because WADA consider caffeine to be a weak stimulant with limited performance enhancing affect and secondly due to difficulty in distinguishing between normal use and attempted misuse.

Despite no longer being a banned substance many sporting authorities still don’t fully condone the use of caffeine. A number of coaches have suggested WADA should review its status given the amount of research now completed in to the level of performance enhancement it offers.

Caffeine remains on the WADA list of monitored substances so there’s a chance it may be added back onto the list of prohibited substances should they discover widespread misuse. Make sure you keep up to date with any changes in its status if you’re intending to use caffeine enhanced products and compete at a level where testing is likely.

Side effects

In some people caffeine has noticeable side affects such as causing a nervous jittery feeling, headaches, restlessness or difficulty sleeping. As with many drugs your body can build up tolerance over time so side affects are likely to be more noticeable for someone who usually avoids caffeine in their normal diet compared to someone with a ‘five a day’ Starbucks espresso habit.

Caffeine is also a mild diuretic which many fear may lead to a greater chance of dehydration. Most studies into caffeine and sport performance have shown this to be negligible but you should always make sure you stay hydrated so if you’re using products such as caffeine gels make sure you’re also taking onboard water as well.

Some research has suggested high caffeine levels can lead to problems in pregnant women so it’s probably best to steer clear of caffeine enhanced sports nutrition products during pregnancy.

In Summary – Different strokes for different folks

There’s plenty of research to back up claims on caffeine’s performance enhancing credentials, but it may not be right for everyone. For example if you find caffeine makes it difficult for you to sleep then any performance benefits are likely to be outweighed from the negative impact caused by lack of rest. Like most things, experiment in training and find what works for you.

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