Caffeine and Athletic Performance

April 14, 2021

Coach Carolyn is Chaski's Nutrition Consultant and Strength & Conditioning Coach. Stocker completed her Master's degree in Strength and Conditioning from Springfield College. With a personal athletic background in track & field and cross country, Coach Carolyn knows firsthand how important proper fueling and strength training is in reducing injury and increasing performance. 3.

Caffeine is the most widely used performance enhancing stimulant in the world.  Athletes may choose coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, dark chocolate, and nutrition supplements such as caffeinated gum, caffeine pills, gels, chews, and pre-workout mix. Are the effects of caffeine on performance worth the hype? Here are some common questions answered.

How does caffeine increase athletic performance?

Caffeine is an effective performance-enhancing aid for sustained endurance exercise as well as being beneficial for intermittent sports with consecutive high-intensity bouts lasting longer than 90 seconds (including team sports such as soccer, lacrosse, and hockey).  Caffeine has an antagonist effect on the adenosine receptors in the brain influencing the rate of perceived exertion and pain levels.  Caffeine may increase the mobilization of fatty acids as a fuel during exercise.  Utilizing fat as fuel allows the body to spare glycogen, our storage form of carbohydrate, which is a fuel source for the body stored in the muscles and liver.  By delaying our use of our glycogen, exercise can be prolonged before fatigue.  

Decreases pain and perception of fatigue allowing you to work harder and longer.

Increases concentration, body coordination, and ability to focus.  

Improves recovery by aiding in carbohydrate uptake after exercise.  

How much caffeine should I consume, and when?

Consuming caffeine in the range of 3-6mg/kg of body weight can provide a performance effect. For example, a 150 pound (68kg) athlete should consume 204 – 408 mg about 30-60 minutes before exercise.  Effects are noticed at about 30 minutes and maximized at 60 minutes.  Caution: Higher doses do not appear to present additional benefits.

Can too much be detrimental or unsafe?

A large individual variation exists when it comes to caffeine, genetics plays a role in how we metabolize and use caffeine.  It is important to pay attention to how caffeine makes you feel and practice with different amounts of caffeine during training.  It can have many side effects such as poor sleep quality (insomnia), gastrointestinal distress, headaches, jitters, and anxiety. For some, caffeine may send you rushing to the restroom and increase the risk of diarrhea.  A common misconception is that caffeine is a diuretic.  Caffeine is usually consumed with fluid (coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks) so this may only occur when taking caffeine pills with minimal fluid intake.  When it comes to caffeine, more is not always better.

If I regularly consume caffeine, do I need to limit or cut it out completely to see an effect?  

Recent research shows that when caffeine is taken 30-60 minutes before exercise, even high daily caffeine users will see a performance benefit.

I am running for > 24 hours, when should I consume caffeine?

Caffeine can be an absolute must for some ultra runners when running through the night but timing is critical.  Pay attention to when the stimulation and alertness from coffee will be needed most.  Stick to your normal morning routine, drink coffee with breakfast.  Avoid caffeine in the early part of your race (soda, caffeinated gels, blocks, coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks).  Once you start to feel tired and feel the need in order to stay awake (maybe around midnight), you may begin consuming caffeine again at a rate of about 100mg/hour and stop again when the sun rises.  This will normalize your circadian rhythm, the natural and internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.  

Caution: It is very easy to overconsume caffeine because of the length of an ultra event and we may not feel the effect of caffeine until about 60  minutes after consumption.  Athletes may overload by consuming caffeine too frequently which can lead to experiencing the negative effects of caffeine discussed above.

Before an event, don’t rely on caffeine to make up for lack of sleep.  Still aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep/night especially during the week before your event.  

Know Your Consumption: What foods and beverages contain caffeine and how much?

Source: Guest, N.S., VanDusseldorp, T.A., Nelson, M.T. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 1 (2021). LInk

— Carolyn Stocker

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