The majority of adults access the benefits of caffeine on a regular basis, often in the form of coffee or tea, as a natural performance enhancer to help open up one’s eyes and turn on their brain before heading off to work, or staying awake during the mid-afternoon lull. After all, no one wants to be that person that falls asleep in a meeting with the boss. Yet there is more to caffeine than meets the eye and many a savvy athlete has already put a boost caffeine to work for them in pursuit of enhanced performance. Before we dive into the clinical research, let’s offer a brief foundational review. Caffeine is a mild stimulant and has been found to occur naturally in dozens of plants. Since caffeine has been used medicinally by billions of people around the world, we know much about its benefits and common reasons for using it. We also know that this mild stimulant has varying effects on each individual and their personal tolerance to caffeine, depending on many factors, including previous caffeine use, hydration levels, and innate responsiveness. As a clinician for over two decades, I can share with you that caffeine has assisted many of my trained athletes. Needless to say, using caffeine does not equate to being trained, just as using caffeine to help wake up in the morning after only two or three hours of sleep does not equate to eight hours of sleep. Yet we all know a cup of coffee or two can sure make a big difference when you are wishing to have a helping hand to get through an intense day when you are tired. Try to convince a person tired in the morning that coffee has no effect and you will certainly get a disagreement. Let’s look at some of the positive studies on caffeine conducted by the experts:
There is evidence that caffeine is effective in enhancing sports performance in trained athletes. [i]
Caffeine acts on the central nervous system to reduce fatigue and increase alertness. [ii][iii][iv]
Caffeine also has been postulated to have an effect on metabolism and neuromuscular function. i
Believed to have an ergogenic effect and hence can play a role in concentration, reaction time, skilled physical performance, and effects on both physical and mental performance. iv [v][vi]
Ergogenic properties during short-term exercise performance. [vii][viii]
Lessens fatigue after repeated high-intensity cyclist sprints. [ix]
Prolong time to fatigue during endurance exercise. [x][xi]
Improved reaction time and muscle power during resistance training and martial arts. [xii][xiii]
The above listed benefits are but a few of the research studies that have investigated the role of caffeine for everything from enhanced cognitive performance, increased muscle contractility, increased alertness during endurance events, to a buffer for sleep deprivation. A great review of the literature on caffeine was done by Ganio in 2009, as captured by the title of the article : Effect of caffeine on sports specific endurance performance: a systemic review.(Danielle and Brian…possible click here opportunity…for the full article) [xiv]
Not All Caffeine is Created Equal
Just as with all natural supplements, the purity and source of the caffeine you are consuming matters. This is particularly the case when looking to support your innate athletic and training capacity. These are the absolutes I share with my sports oriented patients when they are looking to augment as many competitive edges that they can and are looking to source pure caffeine. Look for a product that is “pure”, non-GMO (not sourced from genetically modified sources), that comes with a guaranteed certificate of analysis, and that proves what is on the label is actually in the product. Why is this important? Because you work way too hard on building your body and growing its potential to unintentionally sabotage it with a poor quality or contaminated product. Far too many of the athletes and regular patients make a serious mistake when purchasing supplements and that is, “certainly it has to be good otherwise they couldn’t sell it.” Oh boy, that could be a whole other article. All I will say is buyer beware and be informed.
Additive Effect in the Research
Okay, let’s say you have dialed in your caffeine to your personal optimal dosing levels. Is there any way you can get a little more performance enhancement? Well, in an October 2014 study, in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, the evidence definitely seems promising. [xv] The authors reported: “Boosting nitric oxide production during exercise by various means has been found to improve exercise performance.” The study incorporated the benefits of caffeine and nitric oxide. They concluded that “These results suggest that acute supplementation with a caffeinated nitric oxide releasing lozenge may be a practical and effective means of improving aerobic exercise performance.” xv
Points to Consider
Since one of the many properties of caffeine is as a stimulant, it does increase heart rate and can alter fine motor control for some individuals, thus sports and activities that require fine motor skill need to dose accordingly. Depending on individual tolerance and sensitivity, it may increase central nervous system stimulation and accentuate pre-performance jitters for those susceptible. We all know that drinking a caffeinated beverage before bed can alter sleep quality, once again varying from person to person. I have many patients that can drink coffee until the moment they go to bed. Whether that is good for them is another topic altogether.
Dosing your Unique Chemistry
There are many theories on how to best get the most out of a caffeine boost. I have found that for most people the following approach works well. Slowly find your body’s threshold for caffeine; too little or too much will both not yield the desired results. Generally caffeine is consumed approximately 60 minutes before one exercises, and again during endurance exercise as fatigue begins to impact performance. Remember, you want to work with your body’s biochemistry, and I have found time and time again a gentle nudge in the right direction often works just as well if not better than a dramatic shove when dosing with caffeine.
[i] Goldstein E et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010, 7:5 [ii] McNaughton LR et al. The effects of caffeine ingestion on time trial cycling performance. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2008;(3):320-5. [iii] Hogervorst E et al. Caffeine improves physical and cognitive performance during exhaustive exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(10):1841-51. [iv] Tarnopolsky MA. Effect of caffeine on the neuromuscular system - potential as an ergogenic aid. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008 33(6):1284-9. [v] Glade MJ. Caffeine-Not just a stimulant. Nutrition. 2010 Oct;26(10):932-8. [vi] Burke LM. Caffeine and sports performance. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 33: 1319–1334 (2008) [vii] Desbrow B et al Caffeine withdrawal and high-intensity endurance cycling performance, Journal of Sports Sciences. 2011 29:5, 509-515 [viii] Gliottoni RC, Meyers JR, Arngrimsson SA, Broglio SP, Motl RW. Effect of caffeine on quadriceps muscle pain during acute cycling exercise in low versus high caffeine consumers. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2009;19(2):150-61 [ix] Paton CD et al. Caffeinated chewing gum increases repeated sprint performance and augments increases in testosterone in competitive cyclists. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010. 110(6):1243-50. [x] Jenkins NT et al. Ergogenic effects of low doses of caffeine on cycling performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008;18(3):328-42. [xi] Cox GR et al. 2002. Effect of different protocols of caffeine intake on metabolism and endurance performance. J. Appl. Physiol. 93: 990–999 [xii] Souissi M et al. Effects of Morning Caffeine’ Ingestion on Mood States, Simple Reaction Time, and Short-Term Maximal Performance on Elite Judoists. Asian J Sports Med. 2012. 3(3): 161–168 [xiii] Duncan M et al. The effect of caffeine ingestion on mood state and bench press performance to failure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2011. 25(1)/178 [xiv] Ganio MS, Klau JF, Casa DJ, Armstrong LE, Maresh CM. Effect of caffeine on sport specific endurance performance: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):315-24 [xv]Lee J et al. Caffeinated Nitric Oxide-releasing Lozenge Improves Cycling Time Trial Performance. Int J Sports Med. 2014 Oct 6