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Caffeine use in Athletes to Enhance Performance


Caffeine is a widely used supplement by athletes to enhance their sports performance. As a coach and sports dietitian, I often see athletes using caffeine incorrectly by taking it too close to their training or competition and/or by consuming too large of a dose, which may actually hinder their performance. If you want to benefit from caffeine for your sport, it’s important to learn an appropriate amount and when to consume it, as well as the risks involved.


What are the benefits of caffeine for your sport?

Caffeine is a stimulant that helps an athlete reduce their perceived effort, improves focus and concentration enabling one to train harder. In other words, caffeine gives you an energy boost to run that extra mile or lift that last set of weights without increased signs of fatigue.


Caffeine may also help mobilize fat stores and spare glycogen during training. What this means is that caffeine helps your body use fat as a fuel during prolonged exercise rather than draining your muscle and liver glycogen stores (stored carbohydrate). This allows you to train or compete longer and prolongs fatigue.


What is the recommended dose of caffeine?

General caffeine guidelines recommend consumption of 2-6 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight, one hour prior to the start of exercise for endurance events or up to 20 minutes high intensity training. For example, if you weigh 150# (150/2.2 = 68 kg), you should consume anywhere from 200-340 mg of caffeine daily to gain the benefits (about 2 to 3 cups of coffee).


The effects of caffeine can last four to up to twelve hours after ingestion. This is important for athletes to remember because if they have multiple workouts or competitions, they would not need to consume caffeine throughout the day to maintain the benefits. In addition, athletes should not exceed the recommended doses. Consuming more does not result in better performance.


What are sources of caffeine?

Subjects in the majority of studies conducted on caffeine typically consume it in a powder form; however, athletes can get caffeine from a variety of sources including, coffee, tea, energy drinks, pills, chews/gels, and chewing gum.


It has been found that the caffeine in chewing gum may be absorbed more quickly; whereas, caffeine found in carbohydrate gels and chews have been found to enhance glucose (sugar) absorption, which is advantageous for endurance athletes who require not only extra carbohydrate during competition, but the caffeine may help with sports performance better than a carbohydrate gel alone.


It’s not uncommon for some athletes to drink a cup of coffee before their workout or competition; however, caffeine amounts can vary widely in coffee depending on the type and how it’s brewed. Therefore, coffee may not be a reliable and consistent dose of caffeine to count on to reap the benefits.


What are the risks of consuming caffeine?

Excessive intake of caffeine can result in increased heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, headaches, sleep disorders, and nausea. Intakes of 400 mg of caffeine per day or less than 6 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight in healthy adults typically does not result in adverse effects; in addition, caffeine intake of 100 mg a day — the equivalent of less than 8 ounces of coffee — for children and adolescents is considered safe. However, high doses of caffeine, 6-9 mg per kg of body weight, can be dangerous and decrease sports performance related to the adverse effects.


The NCAA has categorized caffeine as a banned substance. Urine concentrations exceeding 15 micrograms per milliliter, which is about 500 mg of caffeine or 6 to 8 cups of coffee, 2 to 3 hours before a sports competition, results in a positive drug test. Furthermore, energy drinks, may contain banned stimulants like synephrine, which, when added to unknown amounts of caffeine, can result in serious health consequences, including death.


Tips for Athletes

· Consume 2-6 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight. Start off with a lower dose during training to test its effectiveness.

· Consume caffeine one hour before an endurance event or up to 20 minutes of high-intensity training.

· Avoid dangerous doses of caffeine, more than 500 mg daily, to prevent adverse symptoms.

· If you are a habitual user of caffeine (drinking 200-300 mg daily), you may not see benefits from caffeine use. Consider reducing or avoiding caffeine a week before your competition to gain the benefits.

· Drink enough fluids when consuming caffeine. Caffeine acts like a diuretic, but in moderate amounts it won’t cause dehydration.

· Some athletes may see mixed or no benefit from caffeine consumption as an individual’s genetics can affect the results. The only way to know if it will work for you is to test it out during training.


Despite the risks of consuming large amounts of caffeine, many athletes continue to use it to enhance their sports performance. Like any stimulant, it is advised to consult your physician before using caffeine as a supplement for your sport, especially if you have any cardiac issues or struggle with anxiety or sleep disorders.

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