Caffeine is the most effective legal performance-enhancing aid available. It puzzles many sports nutritionists that more people don’t use it to run faster, train harder, and get more out of whatever sport they’re passionate about.
How effective is caffeine?
In controlled studies, caffeine can boost performance by a whopping 20 to 25 percent. In real world competitions the improvement is likely much smaller, around 5 to 7 percent. Isn’t that a worthwhile amount when tenths of a second matter?
Despite its enormous benefit, caffeine supplementation is often viewed as providing an “unfair” advantage. Dr. Jose Antonio, the head of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recently pointed out that “the whole point of using any performance enhancement tool, whether it’s training, diet, or supplements is to get an unfair advantage.”
Besides personal ethical concerns, some people find caffeine at any time of day keeps them from sleeping, or they’re so caffeine fueled all day long that they are simply battling chronic fatigue and don’t find a performance boost. With all this controversy, what’s a person to do?
This article will provide facts on caffeine and give you seven ways using it can improve performance.
Four concerns surrounding the use of caffeine are clarified with the following information:
• Caffeine and coffee do not cause dehydration. Both can increase urination the first few days if you’ve never used them before, but this does not cause dehydration and the effect goes away after a few days.
• Caffeine doesn’t elevate heart rate or blood pressure chronically. However, it does increase heart rate and blood pressure in people who are not regular users, but this effect also goes away after a few days as you become habituated to it. There’s no long-term increase in heart rate or blood pressure.
• There’s much concern about caffeine’s effect on the stress hormone cortisol. Is it a myth?
At this point, it’s unclear. Dr. Jose Antonio provides the view “that small increases in hormones in the blood don’t have a lasting effect, but if you have chronic elevations, it will be a problem.”
Research on the issue is complicated and out of the scope of this article to fully review. A quick snapshot of the evidence shows that when moderate aerobic exercise and caffeine are paired, they lead to a large cortisol spike.
A second study of male athletes had a different outcome. Using a caffeinated chewing gum during 20 repeated sprints resulted in a reduction of cortisol of 21 percent relative to a placebo after the workout.
In the absence of exercise, new caffeine users experience a large spike in cortisol that lasts throughout the day. The same thing happens if you abstain from consuming caffeine for five days.
Once you become habituated to having caffeine in the morning (after five days), the cortisol spike is abolished. However, if you consume additional caffeine in the afternoon, cortisol will be elevated, indicating that chronic use throughout the day is problematic for stress hormone regulation. In addition, caffeine has been found to act in in concert with mental stress to raise cortisol levels higher than they would be in the absence of caffeine.
The bottom line on caffeine and cortisol:
Whether you should use caffeine all comes down to your individual situation and how you respond to caffeine and stress. If you’re an athlete, it’s reasonable to limit caffeine use to competitions or important workouts to get a more robust performance boost since you won’t be habituated to it.
If your goal is fat loss and you suffer from anxiety, it may be beneficial to avoid caffeine. If anxiety isn’t a big issue for you, caffeine can significantly improve mood and training motivation, as you’ll see below.
• Due to different genotypes, people metabolize caffeine differently. In addition, if you have an endocrine imbalance—a common state in people who have trouble losing fat—your ability to metabolize caffeine will be affected. Obviously, if it’s affecting you adversely, avoid it.
The following are the seven greatest performance benefits you can achieve from caffeine, with specific dosing information.
#1: Use Caffeine To Build Strength With Higher Quality Workouts
There are a number of physiological benefits to consuming caffeine such as the following:
- It raises stimulatory hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine
- It helps free fatty acids so that you can burn fat and spare glycogen
- It releases calcium that is stored in muscle for increased endurance
- It decreases the sensation of pain and affects the brain’s message of fatigue, allowing athletes to keep going when they’d normally collapse in exhaustion.
The result is that strength trainees are more motivated to train and will have higher quality workouts with caffeine. For example, a bench press study found that trained men who took 5 mg/kg of caffeine did an average of 22.4 reps and lifted 1,142 kg compared to a placebo group that did an average of 20.4 reps and lifted 1,039 kg.
Other studies show that because fatigue is reduced and mood is higher with caffeine because it makes trainees more motivated. A study of sleep-deprived rugby players, taking 4 mg/kg of caffeine an hour before training found that they self-selected significantly higher loads and got a better quality workout than when they took a placebo.
Caffeine allowed the players to train as hard when sleep deprived as they would if they’d been rested sans caffeine. In contrast, the exhausted, placebo group had a very large decrease in training quality and in the amount of weight they could lift.
Taking caffeine probably won’t increase your 1RM directly, but it will boost training quality and work capacity so you get more out of your workouts. At least 3 mg/kg of caffeine appears necessary to boost performance and higher doses in the 5 or 6 mg/kg range may be worth trying.
#2: Overcome Sluggish Early Morning Training & Improve Concentration
Athletic performance is diminished in the early morning compared to later in the day due to lower activation of the central nervous system and body temperature. Taking caffeine can overcome this.
A study found that when elite athletes took 3 mg/kg caffeine in the morning, maximal strength and power performance in the bench press and squat were enhanced by 3 to 6 percent compared to when they took a placebo. Morning strength and power were nearly equal to levels recorded in an evening trial when performance peaked.
Caffeine will also improve concentration and reaction time. When you fatigue or feel pain, motor firing rate decreases. Caffeine blocks this by activating neurotransmitter release for more efficient muscular contractions.
For instance, a study that gave athletes 3 mg/kg of caffeine along with BCAAs and creatine improved performance as they progressed through the tests. Around 95 minutes into the exercise, the placebo group’s performance dropped off significantly, whereas the supplement group reacted faster in the final stages of the test.
Use It: A 3 mg/kg dose should give you a major lift if you struggle during morning workouts or want a boost in concentration and reaction time. Pairing caffeine with creatine may enhance your focus because creatine increases the availability of phosphocreatine as an energy source for the brain.
#3: Caffeine Improves Sprint & Team Sport Performance
Caffeine can aid just about every type of athlete involved in high-intensity sports, from rugby to basketball, soccer, tennis, and so on. Not only does it blunt fatigue and pain while improving the stimulatory response, caffeine can enhance muscle force by activating greater calcium release from the muscle.
For example, Spanish National team rugby players who consumed an energy drink containing 3 mg/kg of caffeine had a huge increase in jump performance, running pace during games (87.5 in caffeine vs. 95.4 meters/minute in placebo) and pace at sprint speed (4.6 in caffeine vs. 6.1 m/min in placebo).
The right dose for repeated-sprint performance is between 2.5 and 8 mg/kg, depending on the duration, energy requirements, and whether athletes are playing multiple games or competitions within a day. Experimentation is your best bet.
#4: Caffeine Pre- and Post-Workout Reduces Muscle Soreness
Caffeine appears to be one of the most effective supplements for reducing the debilitating delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and restoring strength. A recent study found that when trained men took 5 mg/kg of bodyweight of caffeine and then did a muscle-damaging workout to induce DOMS, they experienced significantly less soreness on day 2 and 3 after training than a placebo.
The caffeine group also did more reps during the workout and it felt easier than a placebo group, which is significant because they applied more stress to the muscles but recovered faster.
Caffeine works post-workout on DOMS too. A study of female trainees found that taking the 5 mg/kg dose of caffeine at 24 and 48 hours post-workout decreased muscle pain by between 26 and 48 percent compared to a placebo, depending on the type of motion being assessed. Recovery of maximal strength was also faster.
A 5 mg/kg is ideal for reducing DOMS and enhancing training performance. This is equivalent to about 2.5 cups of coffee.
Is coffee as effective as caffeine?
It’s unclear. For certain, coffee boosts performance, but whether to the same degree as caffeine capsules has not been decided. The majority of studies show there’s no difference, but one study found that coffee compromised performance compared to caffeine. That trial could be an anomaly or due to individual differences in metabolism.
#5: Caffeine Can Aid Fat Loss From Training
Because it enhances motivation to train, caffeine improves your desire to work hard, lift heavy weights, and move fast and powerfully for greater fat loss. Furthermore, since caffeine keeps you from getting sore for days on end and restores the strength loss you get from hard lifting, you can train more frequently.
If that’s not enough to convince you, caffeine increases your metabolic rate and enhances the body’s ability to burn fat. If you consume it in coffee, your blood sugar is better modulated and insulin sensitivity is enhanced.
You can’t out-train a bad diet, and you can’t out-diet lack of effort. You also can’t out-caffeinate bad eating or a poor training program. You need the whole package for fat loss and caffeine is an excellent tool to give you a motivation boost when your drive and devotion to your goal are slipping.
#6: Caffeine Improves Endurance Performance Dramatically
Caffeine’s positive effect on endurance performance has been known for years and it’s been tested in nearly every sport—runners, cyclists, rowers, paddlers, and swimmers.
The magnitude of benefit appears to vary, with the average performance improvement being around 3.2 percent in trained athletes, according to a large review that analyzed workouts that closely mimic real-life competition. Interestingly, the performance boost fell into a wide range between a slight 0.3 percent decrease in performance to a gigantic 17.3 percent improvement.
For example, in one 1,500-meter time trial of elite runners using caffeinated coffee ran 4.2 seconds faster on average than a placebo, and the best time was 17 seconds faster with coffee. The reason caffeine is so beneficial for endurance because it blunts the experience of pain and fatigue, while improving energy use.
The evidence is leaning toward showing that the greatest performance boost from caffeine is in those who rarely consume it, with habitual users requiring a larger dose if they are to experience any benefit at all.
Depending on whether you’re a regular coffee drinker, performance improvements are maximized with between 3 and 6 mg/kg of caffeine. If you decide to stop consuming caffeine prior to competitions to get the maximal performance boost, do so at least 5 days and possibly a week out.
#7: Caffeine Speeds Recovery For Twice-A-Day Training
Caffeine frees fatty acids for burning and improves glycogen storage in the muscle, making it beneficial for athletes competing at a very high intensity multiple times in a short period, such as a weekend tournament.
The effect is large: One study showed that giving athletes 8 mg/kg of caffeine after performing a glycogen-depleting exercise trial to exhaustion allowed for better performance (152 percent greater) than a placebo on a second sprint interval test also done to exhaustion 4 hours later.
No need to go higher than 8 mg/kg of caffeine because studies suggest that there may be diminishing returns with doses higher than 9 mg/kg.