Can caffeine boost your exercise performance?

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world.  Nearly 100% of adult men and (non-pregnant) women report some level of caffeine consumption.  And about 80% of Australians drink coffee (55% daily; 25% occasionally).

Due to its widespread availability and use, both socially and as an ergogenic aid (substances, devices, or practices that enhance an individual’s energy use, production, or recovery), caffeine was removed from the list of banned substances for athletes.

Caffeine, a naturally occurring substance found in a variety of plants, is generally accepted by most sports scientists as an effective ergogenic aid.

How does caffeine affect performance in exercise and sports?

It’s stimulating effect on the central nervous system reduces the sensation of fatigue, perception of work effort and even pain.  Caffeine also contributes to improved mental clarity, greater concentration, focus and technical skill during and after strenuous activity or fatigue. Ingested caffeine is quickly absorbed by the body and peaks in 1-2 hours.

There are more than 74 good studies on the use of caffeine for both endurance exercise and short-term, higher intensity exercise.  The vast majority of the studies conclude that caffeine does indeed enhance performance and makes the effort seem easier (by about six percent).

A common explanation to why endurance is improved with caffeine is the muscle glycogen is spared.  Glycogen is the stored energy in the muscle tissue that is broken down during exercise.  Studies suggest that glycogen sparing may occur as a result of caffeine’s ability to increase fat availability for skeletal muscle use.  It is important to note, however, that studies so far cannot fully explain the ergogenic effect of caffeine.

How much improvement can you gain from a jolt of caffeine before your workout? 

It depends on many factors, including:

  • duration and intensity of the activity
  • How much caffeine you ingest
  • When you take it
  • Whether you are a habitual caffeine user

The average improvement in the studioz was about 12 percent, with more benefits noticed during endurance exercise than with shorter exercise (eight to 20 minutes).  More benefits were also noticed in people who rarely drink coffee, who were not tolerant to its stimulant effect.

Because each person responds differently to caffeine, don’t assume you’ll perform better with a caffeine-boost.  Depending on when you do your workouts and how you feel before getting started, you can determine if you feel the need for a caffeine boost.  Caffeine comes in various forms—coffee, soft drink, energy drinks, gels, chews, etc.—try a few options to find the one that works best for you prior to a workout.  For example, acidic coffee may cause you a bit of nausea during your workout, whereas a chew may settle better for you.

And as we’ve mentioned before, watch out for those extra ‘empty’ liquid calories.  Remember specialty coffees may be filled with extra, unnecessary fat and calories.

So how much caffeine is needed to feel a boost?

A moderate caffeine intake is considered to be 250 mg/day or the equivalent of 2 and a half cups of coffee a day.  In research studies, the amount of caffeine that enhances performance ranges from 1.5 to 4 mg per pound of body weight taken one hour before exercise.  For a 70 kg person, this comes to about 225 to 600 mg.  More doesn’t seem to be better.

Caffeine levels in products vary, such as: Diet Coke, 12 oz: 30 mg; Espresso, 1 oz shot: 40 mg; Red Bull, 8 oz can: 80 mg; Starbucks, 16 oz coffee: 200 mg.

According to the Australian Council of Sports Medicine, for the average teenager or adult who is exercising with the goal of enjoyment and self-improvement, using caffeine defeats the purpose.  Although we may feel as though we are increasing our performance, it’s more related to the temporary effects of caffeine.  Proper training, nutritional habits, and sleep are more sensible and productive approaches (without the side effects) to get the most benefit from your exercise routine.