Caffeine is perhaps the world’s most widely used drug. It has become integrated into everyday life with millions of people all over the world consuming caffeine as a part of their morning ritual in order to kick start their day. As you might have guessed, it not only helps the average Joe wake up and tackle the day ahead but also can be used by athletes or serious fitness enthusiasts to improve their performance. However, to experience the performance enhancing benefits it’s not as simple as stopping by your local seven eleven and buying a long black before hitting the gym. In this article I’ll discuss how caffeine can improve performance, how you can utilise it in the most effective way and any considerations that need to be taken into account to maximise its benefits.
What is caffeine and how does it enhance performance?
Caffeine is stimulant that effects the central nervous system and stimulates the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). The substance has been shown to improve muscle contractibility and seeing it is a neuromuscular stimulant it can increase neuromuscular recruitment, change perception of effort and alter neurotransmitter function. Based on relevant research it seems caffeine can improve performance over a variety of exercise situations. Caffeine has been shown to improve performance during short duration high intensity events (60 seconds or less), prolonged high intensity events (20-60 minutes), continuous endurance events (approx. 90 minutes) and ultra- endurance events (over 4 hours) and during intermittent team sports.1 In addition, there is evidence to suggest that it increases time to exhaustion.2 The exact reasons for these benefits are unknown but the most likely explanation is that caffeine improves performance due to its ability to alter perception of effort and fatigue.
A study by Bruce and colleagues in 2000 analysed the impact of caffeine on 2000 metre rowing performance. Eight rowers were subjected to three different conditions; a placebo, a 6 mg per kilo of body mass dose and a 9mg per kilogram dose. Both caffeine protocols produced a significant improvement in rowing time and mean power output compared to the placebo.4 Interestingly, the 9mg/kg protocol produced no further improvements in performance. This indicates that there isn’t a dose response relationship for caffeine supplementation, meaning that consuming more isn’t necessarily better.
Of course all this analysis and research is meaningless unless we can come up with some recommendations as to how you can use caffeine to enhance your performance when you hit the gym, track or playing field. The accepted traditional caffeine protocol for improving performance is considered to be 6mg per kilogram of body mass taken 1 hour before exercise. For example, a 80 kilogram athlete would take 480mg. However as mentioned earlier there isn’t always a dose response relationship between the quantity of caffeine taken and performance. As such lower doses have been shown to improve performance when consumed before and during exercise. Specifically, 1-2 mg/kg taken during the last 30% of a cycling time trail and 2.1 – 4.5 mg/kg taken 75 minutes before and during cycling has been shown to enhance performance.5,6 In addition, Graham and Spriet discovered that supplementing 3mg/kg of caffeine produced the same improvements on running performance as the traditional 6mg/kg protocol.7 Based on this information I recommend is to begin consuming at least 3 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight one hour before training and then adjust based on how your body responds. For those who are habitual consumers, consuming closer to the 6 milligram per kilogram recommendation may be more optimal. During prolonged exercise (1-2 hours) consider taking approximately 2mg/kg.
Considerations and Conclusion
Before you run to your nearest café and order the strongest espresso you can buy it must be noted that coffee is not an optimal source of caffeine for improving sports performance. Why is this? It turns out that the possible presence of other compounds in your typical cup of coffee can negate the stimulatory effects of caffeine.8 In addition, the caffeine content in your typical store bought coffee is highly variable and unpredictable making it an unreliable source. Instead opt for sources such as energy gels, sports drinks that contain caffeine and supplements such as caffeine pills as the stated caffeine content in these products are far more reliable.
Interestingly, caffeine was once on the World Anti-Doping Agencies (WADA) Prohibited list. However, caffeine has since been removed from the prohibited list meaning that if you’re an athlete you can rest easy. This means athletes competing in WADA complaint sports can consume caffeine without penalties. Some believe that restrictions may be placed on caffeine consumption as in 2014 WADA put it on their monitoring program due to potential misuse of the substance. It is speculated that some may be using it for the perceived diuretic effect it can have on an individual. It is recommended therefore that athletes keep up to date with WADA’s alterations to prohibited substance lists. Finally, it must be said that no supplement will replace optimal nutrition during training and competition therefore in order for caffeine supplementation to be effective one must organise this aspect of preparation first.