Waking up to a morning cup of tea or coffee is almost universal. It helps us become energetic and focus on our tasks at hand. Caffeine, present in tea and coffee, also plays an important role in improving exercise performance. Along with nitrates it is one of the most studied and safe supplement options for athletes. Even a small dose boosts the performance of athletes. Unsurprisingly, caffeine is one of the most studied supplements for exercise performance. Besides tea and coffee, caffeine naturally occurs in chocolate, guarana , kombucha and yerba mate. Additionally, caffeine is also present in sports beverages , energy drinks, gels and chewing gums. Among the various types of athletic sports, caffeine seems to have maximum benefits for endurance athletes.
How does caffeine help athletes?
The current evidence suggests that caffeine acts as adenosine receptor antagonists . ATP or adenosine triphosphate is the energy currency of our body. One of its breakdown products is adenosine. Hence, as the brain uses up energy throughout the day, adenosine levels steadily increase. With the increased level of adenosine, some of them exit the neurons to bind with adenosine receptors thus causing sleepiness. This is a vital process in the human body as excess adenosine would make us highly energetic thus preventing any sleep.
As one can see from Fig 1, caffeine inhibits the excess adenosine from binding with the receptors, thus allowing more energy availability in the body. One may ask how does this benefit athletes in particular? Adenosine inhibition in the adipocytes (fat cells) increase the concentration of free fatty acids by increasing the rate of lipolysis. The athlete can use this excess free fatty acid for energy during a workout and spare muscle glycogen.
Caffeine has also been proven to increase the concentration of epinephrine in our blood. Epinephrine is a hormone responsible for “fight or flight response” which can provide an added advantage during sports.
Strategy of caffeine usage to maximize performance
Caffeine has been so effective as a supplement for athletes that the NCAA has banned it in excessively high doses. A study found that ingestion of caffeine of 4.45 gm/kg body weight resulted 2-3.2 km coverage more than the placebo group. . Caffeine was found to have a greater impact in performance than carbs alone. Carbohydrates and caffeine , when administered together remain a better option.
One should be cautious regarding usage of caffeine. It is not a magic pill which will help untrained people. A study compared the effects of caffeine between trained and untrained swimmers and found no positive effects. However, the trained group which took caffeine performed better than the trained group which didn’t. It can be inferred that if caffeine can certainly help you if you regularly exercise.
The effect of caffeine is however dependent on the nature of exercise and sport. The evidence regarding strength training has mostly been inconclusive. Regardless, due to beneficial effects of caffeine towards human health those undergoing strength training can consume caffeine anyway, but they should not expect the same results as a soccer player or triathlon athlete.
It is essential for the athlete to asses his or her tolerance to caffeine . One can start as low as 100-200 mg and gradually increase. An optimal amount for athletic performance especially for endurance athlete would be around 200-400 mg for most people . The plasma concentration of caffeine peaks between 45-90 minutes after consumption, hence a good strategy would be to consume caffeine at least one hour before training or the event.