The Science of Caffeine and Sports Performance
Can’t go a day without your morning brew? Don’t worry you are not alone. Approximately 3 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide each day.1 In Canada, coffee is the most consumed beverage amongst adults, even more than tap water!2 The $6.2 billion Canadian coffee industry continues to boom, as many rely on this drink to get through their busy daily endeavours.
The super stimulant responsible for all the buzz is caffeine. Although coffee is the most popular way to consume caffeine, chocolate, teas, soda and energy drinks are also a source.
The pros and cons of caffeine consumption are hotly debated. Research regarding caffeine and exercise is evolving. Even so, the evidence for its benefits is better than that of most other sports performance aids.
How Does Your Body Respond to Caffeine?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical that stimulates the central nervous system to elevate mood, blood pressure and metabolism. Caffeine is rapidly absorbed by the body and broken down in the liver. Within 15-45 minutes of consumption, caffeine enters the bloodstream and interacts with all cells.3
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others and may experience some unwanted side effects upon consumption. According to Health Canada, moderate caffeine intake (400mg or three 8 oz cups/day) likely does not pose any health risks.
Caffeine for Sports Performance?
Much research supports caffeine to be beneficial for enhancing performance in a wide range of activities. Caffeine has been reported to improve performance across endurance, high-performance and strength training activities.3
In addition to the physical benefits, caffeine provides enhanced focus and cognitive performance.4 It is important to note that exercise on its own is capable of improving cognitive performance. Therefore, pairing an appropriate serving of caffeine can complement the natural boost generally achieved through exercise.
Most adults drink coffee, regardless if one leads an active lifestyle or not. If you generally tolerate caffeine well during your daily tasks, continued moderate caffeine consumption should not hinder your athletic performance.
In other words, if you are sensitive to caffeine and develop the side effects of overstimulation (jitteriness, nervousness, insomnia, anxiety), avoid caffeine and try other forms of energy.
Caffeine Before & After Exercise
As mentioned, it takes approximately 15-45 minutes for caffeine to have a stimulating effect on the body. Further, it takes about 3-6 hours for caffeine to clear the bloodstream, and this may extend depending on the individual.3 Therefore, when considering how to integrate caffeine into your exercise, routine timing is essential.
The long-lasting positive effects of caffeine are significant, as someone who ingests caffeine before a morning workout may still reap the benefits later in the afternoon.1In a study observing the relationship between caffeine and performance, researchers had found that caffeine had a positive effect on prolonged exhaustive exercise lasting up to 2 hrs.3
As an athlete, coffee may not be your optimal source of caffeine. Consider instead taking caffeine in an anhydrous (dry) form*. Research suggests that caffeine consumed in this form presents a more significant benefit to enhance endurance performance explicitly.3
*Note: Please speak to a doctor or sports performance professional before considering any supplementation.
On the other hand, it is essential to acknowledge that these long-lasting effects have the potential to inhibit sleep, a critical element in overall exercise recovery. The amount and time at which one should stop consuming caffeine in the afternoon/evening vary between people. As long as you are mindful of this, you can effectively integrate caffeine into your exercise routine.
Caffeine + Carbs
Wait, there is more. The benefits of caffeine can be paired with carbohydrates to boost your pre-workout fuel. Research has found that caffeine may enhance the absorption and usage of carbohydrates during exercise.5
When you combine caffeine with glucose, it produces enhanced activity when compared to just glucose alone.5 More research on this relationship is needed, but if you currently tolerate caffeine well, this could be a great combination to try.
How Much is too Much?
The perfect amount of caffeine that is needed to provide you with energy but no unpleasant side effects is difficult to define. Although Health Canada recommends no more than 400mg/day of caffeine, some may experience unwanted jitteriness, anxiety, and headaches when consuming lower amounts.
When considering using coffee to fuel physical activity, it is vital to recognize how your body tolerates caffeine before adding it into your exercise routine. It is also important to note that if you tolerate moderate doses of caffeine well, anything additional would not likely provide any other benefits.
*A note on hydration: contrary to popular belief, caffeine does not actually dehydrate you. Further, it does not change sweat rates, water loss or affect fluid balance directly.3
Therefore, when considering including caffeine into your diet to enhance exercise performance, the majority of research today says go for it! As long as you are mindful not to over-stimulate yourself with excess caffeine, research supports the many benefits to using this stimulant.
It is practical to first experiment with caffeine, to ensure you are comfortable with how it personally affects your body.
Caffeine content in common sources1
|Food / Beverage||Serving size||Caffeine content (mg)|
|Brewed coffee||250 mL (8oz)||80|
|Espresso||1 standard serving||107|
|Black tea||250 mL (8oz)||27|
|Coca-cola||375 mL (12oz)||49|
|Red Bull energy drink||250 mL (8oz)||80|
|PowerBar caffeinated sports gel||40g sachet||25|
Nutrition planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one-on-one or group nutrition counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. In addition, the Gazelle Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
- Burke, L. M. (2008). Caffeine and sports performance. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab.,33, 1319-1334. doi:10.1139/H08-130
- Coffee Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.coffeeassoc.com/coffee-facts/
- Goldstein, E. R., Ziegenfuss, T., Kalman, D., Kreider, R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., . . . Antonio, J. (2010). International society of sports nutrition position stand: Caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,7(1), 5. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-5
- Hogervorst, E., Bandelow, S., Schmitt, J., Jentjens, R., Oliveira, M., Allgrove, J., . . . Gleeson, M. (2008). Caffeine Improves Physical and Cognitive Performance during Exhaustive Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,40(10), 1841-1851. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e31817bb8b7
- Hulston, C. (2008). Substrate metabolism and exercise performance with caffeine and carbohydrate intake. Med Sci Sports Exerc,40(12). doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318182a9c7