The Lowdown on Caffeine's Benefits for Athletes

July 22, 2009

Athletes have been using various forms of caffeine to help performance for a long time; but is it really helping them as much as they think? Research about caffeine as an ergogenic (performance enhancing) aid has been around for years. Most studies attempt to show what caffeine does to endurance performance, since there are a number of physiological markers that are easily trackable during endurance exercise.

Many studies have shown that caffeine improves endurance performance. But in a review conducted by the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut, researchers showed that those studies could be misleading. Many endurance studies on caffeine test time-to-exhaustion, where subjects exercise at a constant intensity for as long as they can. However, most endurance sports are about going as fast as you can over a given distance. Success in most endurance events is about being able to go very fast without exceeding the energy you can produce with your aerobic metabolic system. When you reach an exercise intensity where your effort exceeds the energy you can produce aerobically, you have to use energy from other systems, and fatigue sets in much faster (called the onset of blood lactate). A more useful indicator of improved performance would be in the studies in which subjects completed a time trial, covering a given distance as fast as they can. In these studies, the effect of caffeine was much more variable, both increasing and decreasing performance in numerous studies. In addition, many studies which reported performance benefits of caffeine, did so in the form of perceived exhaustion, where subjects reported "feeling" less tired.

SPARTA athletes do not compete in purely endurance events (our most aerobic athletes compete in intermittent sports like soccer and rugby), so any possible performance gain from caffeine is fairly negligible. Some athletes do report that caffeine helps them focus during intense workouts, practices and games. There are a number of studies that show that caffeine does improve mental focus. So what do we tell these athletes? Find a caffeine source that does the least amount of harm. Drinking "energy" drinks that are loaded with sugar is not good for anyone. Even the sugar-free substitutes have a laundry list of ingredients that most people would not want to put in their body on a regular basis. Black coffee is the way to go. In a recent study from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, researchers showed that coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the average American's diet. This is not to say that coffee is the best source of antioxidants out there, far from it, but coffee is a useful source of antioxidants, a fact which very few "energy" drinks can boast. In truth, your body needs a variety of antioxidants from a variety of sources, but getting your caffeine from a natural source like coffee is your best bet. Avoid putting a lot of sugar or sweeteners in your coffee, if you're doing that you may as well pick up a Red Bull.

An average cup of black coffee has about 130 milligrams of caffeine (compare that to 80 milligrams in Red Bull), plenty of caffeine to give you the mental focus you are after. But remember, everything in moderation. Athletes who rely on caffeine to get "up" for games or work-outs are often creating a mental "crutch" that is hard to escape. And as your body develops a tolerance to caffeine, it will take more and more caffeine to get the same feeling of "focus" you've come to expect.

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