Caffeine and Athletes

The idea of using caffeine to improve workout performance is hardly new. Considered the most widely used drug in the world, scientists have for many years, studied the way the compound affects athletes.

You don’t need a lot to get a good response. Early research had athletes taking up to 13 mg/kg of body mass, where new studies show you’ll get a boost from as little as 1-3 mg/kg of weight. Even at that level, research shows performance during endurance exercise can improve by 20 to 50 percent compared to a control group. And among world-class cyclists (where as little as 1 percent improvement in performance can be the difference between winning and losing) a 100-mg dose improved performance by 4 percent; a 200-mg dose improved it by a total of 8 percent.

It works for lots of different types of athletes—but not all. Hundreds of studies document the speed and endurance benefits of caffeine for cyclists, runners, and rowers. Even tennis players were found to improve hitting accuracy, speed, and agility when they caffeined up before hitting the court. But there’s been little evidence that caffeine can help sprinters, and in fact some research shows that with very-high intensity sprints (20-30 seconds) there’s actually a decrease in performance.

It’s an awesome painkiller. Experts used to think using caffeine somehow spared muscle glucose but now the evidence points squarely to its effect on the nervous system. “It’s as if you snipped the fibers in the muscles that tell the brain how tired you feel”. Numerous studies show caffeine also lowers perceived exertion, or how difficult an exercise feels—so you can work longer and harder without feeling as worn out.

It works even if you’re already addicted to your morning Joe. The effects between users and nonusers is really quite small. If you want to maximize the response, you can consider skipping your a.m. coffee.

It’ll give you a bigger boost if you take it mid-way through your race. The classic caffeine dosing used to be 45 to 60 minutes before an event, but that’s not always the rule. Since many athletes are pumped with adrenaline at the start of a race, getting that caffeine jolt isn’t quite as important early on. If you take it half- or midway through, it can help get you through those last few miles.

It can be taken in many forms. For athletes, the simplest way to get caffeine pre-event is usually in a beverage (like coffee or tea) or 100% caffeine tablets. For a caffeine jolt mid-event, products like energy gels, chews, bars and tablets are easier go-to’s.

But avoid energy drinks during your workout or race.  Not usually recommend because of their high level of carbohydrates, which can interfere with how efficiently water gets absorbed into your system. A drink like Red Bull, for example, is typically 12 percent carbs, while a beverage like Gatorade is only about 6 percent. The minute you start adding carbs you slow down hydration, and ultimately that will have a much bigger effect on performance than caffeine.


It’s not for everyone. In some people, even small amounts can cause headaches, dizziness, GI distress, nervousness and anxiety. And in high doses almost all of us will get these side effects. Some people can only take a little and some a lot—you have to experiment to see what’s right for you. It’s extremely personal.

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