Caffeine for sports & fitness: How much and when?
I’m a great believer that improvements occur when we are able to put in consistent quality work over weeks, months and years. Caffeine has been such a useful aid to help me achieve this and maybe it can help you too.
But don’t just take my word for it: Caffeine has been studied for over 30 years and is one of only 5 Performance Supplements that is deemed to have enough evidence to be “Used to directly contribute to optimal performance” by the Australian Institute of Sport [i].
Caffeine has been shown to be an effective ergogenic aid for sustained maximal endurance activity and for high intensity exercise of prolonged duration including team sports such as soccer, rugby, rowing etc.[ii],[iii]
It works in a number of different ways and is still being studied, so we don’t have all the answers yet. But here’s a couple of mechanisms of action of caffeine that I believe have contributed to my success:
1) Caffeine passes in to the central nervous system, having an effect on alertness [ii]. This is shown in many studies, one of the most recent in 2016 showed improvement in endurance performance in mentally fatigued individuals. [iv] I personally have used caffeine after a stressful 10 hour day at work for this exact benefit, and it helped me complete some great sessions despite arriving feeling mentally exhausted. This has been invaluable in helping me train consistently enough to allow me to compete internationally whilst holding down a full time job.
2) Caffeine has action in skeletal muscle where research suggests it increases the mobilisation of free fatty acids[ii]. This has the knock on effect that the muscles rely less on glycogen stores for energy during the exercise bout[ii] Ask any endurance sports nutritionist and they will tell you; preservation of glycogen stores is key to maximising performance at the latter stages of an event [v]. In other words; at the end of a hard event or hard training session, your ability to put in the quality work right to the end is helped by caffeine in the system.
We’ve all heard it said that Practice Makes Perfect, right? Wrong! Where I come from we were taught Practice Makes PERMINANT! If you repeatedly perform poor technique because you are fatigued then you engrain poor technique and this undoubtedly limits your development. And if you repeatedly can’t finish that last set imagine how much further behind your potential you are falling? Session after session, week after week, getting out those last sets with good form are key to progress. I believe using caffeine at the right time can be a great asset.
A dedicated “pre-workout” that contains caffeine or can I just have a coffee?
This is a good question: Coffee is a great pre-workout (it's the way I have my caffeine) and you’ll definitely see some benefits over not having any caffeine. However, research has shown that the effect of caffeine is more powerful when consumed in its anhydrous form (powder, capsules, tablets etc) vs coffee [ii],[iii] .
As well as this, with a pre-workout you’ll have more idea exactly how much caffeine you’re consuming per serving as it tells you on the packaging. But a coffee can range from 12-564mg depending on the brand, size of cup and even the way the beverage is made[iii]
Its very important to know how much caffeine you’re taking because like most substances “more” doesn’t equal “better”: Having that hit of 3mg/kg Body Mass 15-60mins before exercise is the key [ii],[iii]
Caffeine has a dose response curve that hits a 3mg/kg Body Mass plateau; this means that doses higher than this offer no additional benefit, but increase the risk of negative effects such as jitters, increased heart rate and performance impairment.[iii] So getting the dose right for your body weight will give you the balance of the positive effects with reduced chance of the negative effects
You also need to consider how much coffee you’re drinking at other times of the day: if you’re someone with low habitual caffeine intake though out the day (i.e. you like a Starbucks/ Nero/ Costa out and about during the day) you should hold off from drinking coffee to maximise the performance benefits from your pre-workout [vi].
In other words, be mindful of the timing of your caffeine intake during the day if you want to maximise your workouts. If you can’t do without your Costa in the daytime, maybe switch to decaf.
There are negatives to consider when using pre-workouts: Many dedicated “pre-workouts” on the market contain a whole concoction of other chemicals and substances that claim to enhance performance, but have little research or evidence, particularly in the combinations and doses within the product you’re buying. Also many of them contain very high doses of caffeine so you risk side effects for no extra gain, particularly for people who weigh less.
My choice? Coffee all the way, because I LOVE it. And I love the coffee house culture.
I wouldn’t be taking my responsibilities as a Pharmacist and Sports Nutritionist seriously if I didn’t add the following warning at this stage. It is of huge importance to me to compete “clean” and by that I mean respecting the WADA code with respect to banned substances. Caffeine is not banned, however, taking any supplements increases the risk of inadvertently exposing yourself to other chemicals and banned substances added either deliberately of accidentally during the manufacturing process. If you’re subject to testing this can lead to a ban whether you intended to consume a banned substance or not.
To decrease the risk (and note I say decrease rather than eliminate) when using supplements ALWAYS choose a company that is Informed Sport registered. Check out http://www.informed-sport.com/home for more information.
· If you choose to use coffee be mindful that the amount you’re drinking will vary depending on the type of coffee and the way it is made. Find one that suits you.
· If you choose to use a supplement choose an Informed Sport registered product and be mindful of the dose and any additional products it contains.
· In either case, be mindful of the timing of caffeine throughout the day in order to maximise the ergogenic effects.
Timing my caffeine intake has been invaluable in helping me get in quality sessions consistently over the years, particularly when I’ve had long days at work and feeling mentally fatigued, or I’m prepping for a competition. Without consistent quality sessions I would not have achieved what I have.
[ii] E R Goldstein et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010. 7:5
[iii] L M Burke Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. Vol 33: 1319-1334 (2008)
[iv] Rafael Azevedo et al EJAP (2016)
[v] Asker E Jeunkendrup, Journal of Sport Sciences. 2011: 29(S1):S91-S99
[vi] Ross Beaumont et al. Journal of Sports Sciences (October 2016).