For some of us, ingesting caffeine is second nature, just like breathing. We have our routines of waking up, eating breakfast, and drinking a cup of coffee. First caffeine intake of the day. Some of us will continue this trend and around the 2-3 o’clock hour find ourselves reaching for that second cup of coffee. Second (...sometimes third) intake of caffeine in the day. It is a habit, and a habit that isn’t necessarily a bad one at that. Caffeine helps to wake us up, keeps us feeling alert, and prevents us from needing that mid afternoon nap. Most are aware of the “feeling” caffeine can give us in our day to day life, but are we aware of its benefits in sport and performance?
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a drug that acts as a natural stimulant for the central nervous system. It is considered a psychoactive drug, which simply means that it is a substance that can alter standard brain function and can alter changes in standard mood, behavior, and perception. One of the most prominently known effects of caffeine is that it blocks a chemical reception that triggers the commencement of drowsiness.
Caffeine can be found in a multitude of different plants native to South American and East Asia. As stated before, the most well known source for caffeine (at least to most humans) is the coffee bean! This bean stems from the Coffea plant and the caffeine is extracted by steeping the plant in water.
For statistical references, the American population drinks around 400 millions cups of coffee per day, quite the number!
Pros and Cons of Caffeine Consumption
There are two sides to every story and caffeine is no different. It is important to note that caffeine can metabolize at different rates in individuals so effects are always varying. Some associated risks with caffeine consumption is can stem from when individuals consume more than 500-600 mg/day. When individuals exceed that limit, it can result in insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and upset stomach. These effects can be crucial to athletes when thinking about preparation. Proper amount of sleep is vital to recovery for training and allowing the body to re-energize for the next day's training load. If ingesting caffeine too late at night, this can decrease the rate you fall asleep, as well as your ability to stay in a deep sleep. Another downside to caffeine consumption is the timing of the consumption. If not consuming caffeine at the right timing, you can miss the peak window and experience bouts of nervous energy that is exceeding the “recommended amount,” and can cause too many “pre-race jitters.”
On the other hand, there are many positive effects to caffeine consumption. Caffeine consumption has been shown to benefit performance in endurance sports. To fuel our muscles, our body utilizes Glycogen. When Glycogen stores are depleted, this is the point when exhaustion sets in. Another fuel our body uses, secondary to Glycogen, is fat stores. When Glycogen is still available, our bodies can utilize our fat stores as well. How does this relate to caffeine? Well, caffeine helps to promote our muscles to using fat as our fuel. This is beneficial since we have much more fat stores than readily available glycogen. When our bodies are signaled to use fat, this delays the depletion of muscle glycogen. That’s good news for athletes! Caffeine can help us to sustain energy levels further into activity, without having the all too familiar, “bonking feeling,” or “hitting the wall.”
Another benefit from ingesting caffeine comes from the effects this stimulant has on your brain! Drinking that cup of coffee, or taking a caffeine tablet, may alter our idea or perception of how hard we are going. This can allow us to put aside our own mental fatigue and focus on our physical exertion.
When to Ingest Caffeine Prior to Performance?
Think that caffeine could be the right boost for you? Then determining the peak time to take caffeine is important. As a note: always practice different times of caffeine ingestion during training. You don’t want your first experience with caffeine to be on race day!
It has been found that ingesting large amounts of caffeine does not yield better responses within our bodies. Less is more definitely applies to this situation. You want to find the smallest amount that produces the desired results. This allows you to decrease the potential for negative effects, while still benefiting from the positive effects. Ingesting caffeine in the window of 2-4 hours prior to competition (varies upon the individual) can help an athlete achieve the maximal effect on fat stores. This is a great timeline for endurance athletes. If you are participating in shorter events, then ingesting closer to competition will yield a caffeine peak much sooner. Some may suggest to decrease caffeine consumption in the days/week heading into a performance. There have been studies to both support and refute this claim. If this specific situation of caffeine abstinence helps you, then go for it!
Ah caffeine. The thing some of us crave from the minute we wake up. It has been around to help us stay alert, stay up to finish a late deadline, and now to help us with our sport performance. Whether we chose to consume caffeine through coffee, tea, pills, or gels, it seems these days the options are endless. Deciding whether caffeine is the right choice for your performance goals, is a very individualized decision. If you are someone who experiences more of the negative side effects from consuming caffeine, then it may not be the right choice. If on the other hand you experience limited negative effects and benefit more from the positive, then playing around with appropriate doses and timing may be the key to your next performance goal.
There are many, many forms of caffeine to choose from: coffee, teas, sodas, pills, gums, gels and shots
Caffeine should be tested in training—both before and during runs—to assess individual response. It’s better to err on the side of caution when considering the source, amount and use of caffeine before and during training and racing.