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Does Caffeine Boost Athletic Performance?

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

It always amazes me when I meet someone who doesn’t drink coffee because my morning cuppa’ joe is one of my favourite moments in each day. Either I need to make some friends, or I realllllly like my coffee. Let’s go with the latter…

Learning about the benefits of caffeine to sports performance was exciting for me, to say the least. I can now sip my coffee and imagine it having the same effect of a hard interval set while sitting on my butt. Ok, maybe not quite. But now that I have your attention, let’s talk about HOW caffeine boosts athletic performance.

1. Glycogen sparing effect. Caffeine has been found to help utilize fat stores for energy, delaying the effect of glycogen depletion and in effect being able to go harder for longer. Cyclists were tested and found able to go 15 minutes longer at the same sustained effort during a time trial. That is HUGE!

2. Mental alertness. When you’re feeling sluggish and have a hard interval set ahead of you, a dose of caffeine may be just the push you need to get out the door.

3. Caffeine helps to reduce RPE. You’ve gotten out the door, great! Well the benefits aren’t over. Caffeine can help reduce RPE allowing you to hit your goal paces with less effort.

4. Improved mood. This is why we run in the first place, isn’t it? Caffeine has shown to have similar effects to “runner’s high” by releasing hormones such as dopamine. If you notice bags of coffee under the Christmas tree from your partner next year, they may already be privy to this information.

5. Recovery. Drinking caffeine after exercise has been shown to replace glycogen level stores faster.

Like every good thing, moderation is a key factor here. Runners tend to not be the best at moderation, at least in my experience (“You said 1 hour run so I’ll just do 2”). So, this is worth talking about – the more caffeine you ingest does not increase the athletic performance benefits to you. In fact, you’ll probably just end up in a porta potty or neighbourhood bush by overdoing it. My research found that anywhere from 3-6mg/kg body weight is the recommended dose approximately 1 hour before exercise. For reference, one shot of Starbucks espresso has about 75mg of caffeine and an 8 oz green tea has about 50mg.

Negative effects of caffeine:

1. Gastrointestinal issues. Too much caffeine causes your stomach to release acid which can leave you with a stomach ache and/or heartburn.

2. Diuretic. Too much caffeine makes your body lose water which can put you at risk for things like dehydration and constipation.

3. Ingesting too closely to bed. Sleep is key to a good training plan so if it’s interrupting your sleep, you’re negating the effects on your performance and recovery.

4. Nutrient depletion. Caffeine interferes with absorption of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and B vitamins. Wait at least an hour between caffeine intake and your daily dose of vitamins.

In conclusion, caffeine will affect every individual differently. This is not a complete summary of the benefits or negatives of caffeine but intended to answer some of the "HOW" for those individuals who already safely consume caffeine.

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