Caffeine as an ergogenic aid

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Caffeine is one of the most widely used supplements both on and off the sporting field. Dating back to the 1920’s there has been a long history of use and abuse in sports. More to the point, it is one of the most widely abused drugs in society. 

Did you drink coffee this morning?

I bet a majority of you drank coffee this morning, myself included. I have seen some clients who drink up to 6-7 cups per day. These days with espresso machines in offices and homes, having the ‘hardcore’ caffeine sources has even become easier to achieve.

Caffeine has a range of effects in the sporting arena

Caffeine improves mental acuity and alertness.  Think about why everyone drinks coffee in the work place; it’s to wake up for the day, stay alert and to concentrate. Of course there’s the taste, but for a majority of people this is secondary. In precision based or long duration sports where mental fatigue may set in, this is where caffeine comes in handy.

Caffeine has several actions on the body

It affects the skeletal muscle by increasing fat break down. This causes fat to become available for use as fuel during exercise. For some people caffeine may help to spare carbohydrate stores and burn larger amounts of fat. I say some, because some because people can react differently to caffeine, there are responders and non-responders.
In endurance-based sports glycogen sparing is defiantly a plus. The limiting factor in ultra marathon type events is running out of glycogen, which is essentially your carb stores.

Caffeine also affects the central nervous system

Caffeine can reduce the perception of effort during an intense activity. It can also help working muscles to recruit more motor units. This means it makes the exercise feel easier, even though it actually isn’t.
As you can imagine this is quite useful if the exercise you’re doing is quite painful. Often, pain can be a barrier to increased performance and effort. Especially, if you have been at it for a few hours, for example during an ultra marathon event, where you could be out exercising for 3-5 hours. That’s a lot of running and a lot of pain! A dose of caffeine may be what you need to dull the pain senses.

Caffeine can be beneficial in many sports

In trained athletes caffeine is effective in speed and endurance exercise ranging in duration from 60-180 seconds. Studies looking at team based sports like hockey, rugby and soccer have shown caffeine to be ergogenic during high- intensity intermittent exercise for example the sprint part of the game lasting 4-6 seconds. 

As you can see there are many advantages of caffeine use, across a wide variety of sports. It’s defiantly worth considering safe and controlled use of caffeine in these circumstances.

Caffeine doesn’t work for everyone

There are responders and non-responders to caffeine. Blanket one-size fits all approach does not always work. There are people along the spectrum of highly caffeine sensitive (me) and others who can drink 10 café lattes and fall asleep (certainly not me!).  This is the type of thing you need to consider, if and when you decide to use it.
Take for example if some one is highly sensitive to caffeine. One drop of coffee and their hands are shaking and nerves are high. A person like this certainly don’t want to be throwing back caffeine shots before you race. This could cause an athlete to false start, over think technique and generally stuff up. – Not a good thing!

How much caffeine should I take before a race?

Caffeine use is best, when timed right. Old caffeine protocols used to require an athlete to mega dose before racing 6mg per kg of body weight and then have nothing throughout competition. Now we know its best used during time of fatigue and only small amounts 3mg per kg every 1hr from products like; coke, coffee, ‘no doz’ or sports gels. More isn’t better necessarily.
If you think about more widely, how do we normal folk (non athletes) drink caffeine. We drink it through out the day spaced by a few hours to stay awake and more alert. Transfer that to sports now and it starts to make sense.

What are the side effects to using caffeine?

If you’re trying to lose weight caffeine may not be your best friend. The problem is that we are not taking caffeine in ‘no doz’ pill form, most people drink it in liquid that typically contains sugar. Yes our milky coffees, sugar filled sports and energy drinks are not calorie free and do add up. Think about it, if your drinking 3x 300ml small flat whites per day that’s 216kcal total just in milk alone, if you’re adding sugar it’s even more!
Even worse, caffeine can play havoc with your hunger levels. It makes you feel full within the first 1-2 hours of drinking it. Then your blood sugars drop and you feel starving hungry, especially if you haven’t eaten.
 These two factors alone can really derail a weight loss program. Due to this I recommend no more than 300mg per day= approx. 1-2 cups of coffees per day, in normal circumstances.

Don’t mix your caffeinated drinks

Stick to single ingredients not mixed supplements. It’s really popular to mix caffeine with other ingredients, particularly in weight loss supplements. Take pre-workouts for example, I think they have every ingredient in there minus the kitchen dish washing liquid! There are some serious nasties in there.
If you are drug tested in your sport, this is a huge doping issue. JACK3D a pre-workout was only removed from the market 2 years ago, it contained banned substances. So make sure you check the ingredients, this could cost you, your sporting career.
There are also health concerns. If a supplement combines a salt like creatine, along with caffeine, it can have an impact on your renal system. In some cases I have seen, it can cause acute renal failure and put some one in hospital.

Where is caffeine found in food?

Coffee, tea and chocolate all naturally contain varying amount of caffeine. While colas, sports drinks and gels contain differing amounts. If you have a budget of 300mg or less per day, choose wisely, watch the added sugars and portion control your liquids. Use these examples to calculate how much caffeine you have in a day:
Instant Coffee  – 27-173 mg (often around 65 to 90 mg)
Espresso, Single Shot – 29-100 mg (often around 75 mg)
Kenyan Green Tea – 58 mg
Black Tea – 58 mg
Pepsi Max/Diet Pepsi Max – 69 mg
Pepsi-Cola – 37.5 mg
CocaCola Classic/Cherry Coke/Lemon Coke/Vanilla Coke – 34 mg
Monster Energy – 160 mg
Red Bull – 80 mg
Dark Chocolate 30g – 20 mg
Milk Chocolate 30g- 6 mg
No doz pill- 100mg
 References 
  •  L.Burke & V.Dean Clinical sports nutrition 4th edition 2010 McGraw- Hills Australia
  • Caffeine and Anaerobic performance Ergogenic value and mechanisms of action. J.Davis, J.Green. Sports med 2009, 39 (10)
  •    J.K. Davis & J. Matt Caffeine and Anaerobic Performance Ergogenic Value and Mechanisms of Action GreenSports Med 2009; 39 (10): 813-832
  •  L.Burke & B.Desbrow Caffeine for sports performance, Human Kinetics 2013
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