Caffeine and sporting performance: instructions
There is no doubt caffeine improves sporting performance in most athletes and disciplines. It is now well documented that the majority of athletes (70-80%) regularly use caffeine.
In a previous article on sporting performance and “limit” , I explained how caffeine positively influences sporting performance. In theory, caffeine works through various mechanisms, although the key area is in the brain, reducing the sense of fatigue and increasing motivation to continue despite being tired.
Given this, how should caffeine be used? This is where uncertainty creeps in, for multiple reasons: genetic diversity in the metabolism of caffeine and the sensitivity of the brain to the action of caffeine; age, gender and an athlete’s performance level; how caffeine is taken, dosage, time taken before or during a race; and how used to caffeine one is and use of other drugs (most commonly, oral contraceptives). Let’s work through these in order, focusing on the essential elements.
Role of genetics
Firstly, caffeine clearly doesn’t have the same effect on everyone and, consequently, on every athlete. These differences start with the speed at which ingested caffeine is metabolised and eliminated by the body.
Remaining with genetics, some people’s brains are more sensitive to caffeine, and other’s less so, and this might have an impact on its effects, both positively and negatively (anxiety, sleeping disorders). Overall, while genetic differences between one athlete and the next are important, we don’t yet know how to adapt the use of caffeine in relation to such aspects. In all likelihood, we’ll be able to do this in the near future.
There is evidence to suggest the psychomotor effects of caffeine (i.e. how it improves sporting performance) are more pronounced in younger athletes. But, the effects are not lost as one gets older. At present, the indications for how older athletes use caffeine are the same as for athletes in general.
Gender and use of medicine
Caffeine would seem to be metabolised more slowly by women than men. The phase of a women’s menstrual cycle also plays a part. Leaving aside this consideration, theoretically, female athletes might benefit from taking caffeine slightly before men. Recent work has found that taking caffeine 90 minutes before a race is sufficient to achieve the same effects of caffeine for female athletes as those documented for male athletes. Hormone combinations used as contraceptives influence the metabolism of caffeine, as do many medicines. Nonetheless, there is not normally any need to change how one uses caffeine if one is also using such contraceptives.
Personal athletic performance
We know too little to know how sporting capacity might have an impact on the influence of caffeine.
How caffeine is consumed
This is a particularly interesting aspect. New options are currently being explored for how caffeine is consumed, and this might mean, in the relatively near future, significant improvements and adaptations to the needs of individual athletes in different race situations. This is an excellent reason to return to this in a future article. It is necessary, at this stage, to clear up an issue that is as important as it is long-standing. Is caffeine from coffee as effective as anhydrous caffeine (i.e. pure caffeine) or not? After plenty of uncertainty largely due to a lack of experimental data, the answer is now “yes”.
Take an espresso from your local coffee house. It contains, on average, about 100 mg of caffeine. But there is also documented evidence of it sometimes being as little as 25 mg and as high as 214 mg per espresso from one coffee house to the next, and even differences of 132 mg in the same coffee house, on different days. So, with a coffee from a coffee house, there is clearly some uncertainty.
On this point, the information is fairly clear and correct for most, albeit not all, situations. Ingesting 3 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight would seem to be effective in most cases. For a 60kg athlete, this generally means about 180 mg of caffeine for the entire race.
This is another area where the information is pretty clear although there is plenty of room to improve, when it comes to dosage, as to how caffeine is used in relation to the individual demands of a race. In general, the current recommendation is about 1 hour before a race because caffeine is effective for a few hours. In truth, it remains to be clarified exactly how long the effect of caffeine lasts, and how it changes from athlete to athlete and situation to situation. This is why it is probably right to take caffeine about an hour before a race in most cases, but perhaps not in all cases.
Regularity of caffeine consumption
Consuming caffeine in everyday life and during exercise results in a partial loss of efficacy. In most cases, this loss is not significant, but there might be substantial differences from athlete to athlete and situation to situation.
In the mid-zone, the thinking is that caffeine remains somewhat effective, especially if the dosage for a race is increased to about 6 mg/kg. Still, 6 mg/kg is a lot and might have side effects, such as anxiety or sleeping problems. So, it is best not to adopt this approach, unless you are under the guidance of an expert in this field and only after determining your individual tolerance. Plus, these indications are definitely not final, because of how things vary from person to person, such as how much efficacy is lost in a regular caffeine consumer, tolerance to increased caffeine doses, and the actual amount needed to achieve the desired effect once more. Above all, certain scientific knowledge in this field is very limited.
Stopping drinking coffee before a race
Many athletes try to make caffeine more effective on race day by stopping to drink coffee a few days before a race. Once again, we find ourselves a long way from any certain knowledge, but it would seem fairly certain that stopping about 4-5 days before isn’t enough to produce the desired effect. Even for periods longer than 4-5 days, it is likely there is plenty of variability from athlete to athlete, and from one regular amount of consumption to the next. Nonetheless, if one normally only drinks a moderate amount of coffee – 1 or 2 cups a day and no other drinks rich in caffeine – then there is no need to stop drinking coffee in the run up to a race.
- Pickering C, Grgic J. Caffeine and exercise: what next? Sports Med. 2019;49:1007-30
- Skinner TL, Desbrow B, Arapova J, Schaumberg MA, Osborne J, Grant GD, Anoopkumar-Dukie S, Leveritt MD. Women experience the same ergogenic response to caffeine as men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51:1195-1202
- Desbrow B, Hughes R, Leveritt M, Scheelings P. An examination of consumer exposure to caffeine from retail coffee outlets. Food Chem Toxicol. 2007;45:1588-92