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Can Caffeine Give You An Added Athletic Advantage?

Does caffeine offer more than just a mental pick-me-up?

Written by Brooke Kittel

If you're like many, your morning ritual usually includes the consumption of a caffeinated beverage. Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, sports beverages and a variety of foods such as chocolate. In 2000, The National Coffee Association reported that 54% of the U.S. adult population drinks coffee daily. More recent estimates put that number closer to 75% (it's no wonder there is a Starbucks on nearly every street corner!). Most people consume caffeine for an immediate mental "pick-me-up". But what about caffeine's ability to improve athletic performance?

Research has shown that caffeine does not appear to provide an added advantage in short-term, high intensity exercise (i.e., sprinting) but does appear to provide performance-enhancing benefits in endurance activities (i.e., running and cycling). Let's look at what occurs in the body when caffeine is introduced prior to endurance exercise. The primary fuel for muscles is glycogen but fat is the most plentiful energy resource available in the body. When caffeine enters the body, it forces the working muscles to utilize as much fat as possible. This "spares" glycogen. Research has shown that in the first fifteen minutes of exercise, caffeine reduces the loss of glycogen by as much as fifty percent. Glycogen "spared" at the beginning of endurance exercise is then available during the later stages of exercise.

Caffeine has also been proven to be a central nervous system stimulant, therefore, quickening reactions and increasing mental awareness. It is also theorized that caffeine may have the ability to strengthen muscle contractions. Despite the known benefits of caffeine in endurance exercise, individual results may vary greatly. Differences in metabolism, diet, and frequency of caffeine use are some of the factors that can determine how an individual will react to caffeine. In addition, some individuals may experience a decrease in performance due to caffeine's potential side effects. Although caffeine does not appear to significantly alter water balance or body temperature during exercise, dehydration is a potential concern because caffeine is a mild diuretic. This is detrimental to activities such as resistance training where fluid is required for the transfer of nutrients to facilitate muscular growth. Increased fluid intake, too, is a consideration when exercising in hot environments. Should you determine that caffeine is a viable tool to enhance your endurance activities, the following is a suggested guide in utilizing caffeine effectively:

  • Research conducted by The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has shown that ingestion of 3-9 mg of caffeine per kilogram (kg) of body weight one hour prior to exercise increased endurance running and cycling performance.
  • Consider decreasing or abstaining from caffeine 3 to 4 days prior to your activity. This allows caffeine tolerance to decrease.
  • Make sure that you have previously utilized caffeine extensively under a variety of training conditions to determine how your body reacts to caffeine.
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Article Reviewed: June 13, 2013
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