How to use Caffeine as a Performance Aid

Invigorating steaming cup of coffee – a perfect companion for athletes. Caffeine, a natural performance aid, heightens alertness and decreases fatigue. Use it before hitting your workout or competition

Want to be at the top of your game?  Caffeine is one of the most powerful sports performance supplements yet it is often used improperly!

Caffeine is a powerful ergogenic aid to improve your sports performance, but are you using the right amount, the best sources, and timing it correctly? 

I’ve distilled the scientific research to give you a simple, handy guide to help improve your performance WITHOUT compromising your long-term health.

First, let’s start with the benefits.

Empowered female cyclist showcasing strength and poise. This image captures the essence of athletes looking to achieve peak performance by using caffeine to enhance key competitions and workouts and push harder for longer.

Benefits of Caffeine:

Caffeine is one of the top ranked sports performance supplements that meets the criteria for being safe, permitted, effective and has a strong body of scientific evidence to back it up. (The other supplements in the top six most effective sports performance supplements include: Beta Alanine, Dietary Nitrate/Beetroot Juice, Sodium Bicarbonate, Creatine, and Glycerol)

Following ingestion, caffeine is rapidly absorbed and transported to all body tissues and organs where it exerts a large variety of effects. Evidence of the use of caffeine to enhance sports performance has been developed over more than a century of scientific testing, with robust evidence now confirming the following:

  • Improves Performance
  • Nervous System Alertness
  • Reduced Perception of Effort and Fatigue — This allows optimal pacing and skill outcomes to be maintained for a longer period of time
  • Reduced Pain

Keep in mind, while caffeine may improve sports performance in most, the effects of caffeine vary among individuals and can be adverse for some.

Caffeine Usage Guidelines

A tempting image of a well-crafted macchiato, highlighting the rich espresso base with a dollop of frothy oat milk. Did you know? The ideal dosage of caffeine to improve sports performance is 2-3mg per kilogram of body weight. This equates to a double espresso or 8 ounce cup of coffee. Enjoy the boost!

Start with the smallest effective dose: 1.5mg per kilogram of body weight or about 100mg

Effects of caffeine plateau at about 3mg per kilogram of body weight or about 200mg

Note: Adults should limit caffeine intake to a maximum of 400mg per day from all sources (including supplements, coffee, soda, chocolate, and energy drinks). Junior athletes or children under the age of 18 should limit caffeine to a max of 2.5mg per kilogram per day.

Adverse side effects of high caffeine doses include: over stimulation, anxiety, and interference with fine motor control

When to consider using it

Professional female cyclist in action during a race, showcasing speed and focus. She strategically carries a caffeine gel in her cycling shorts for a quick energy boost. Caffeine supplementation is best used during competition, including endurance sports and short sports competitions.

  • During endurance sports (>60 minutes)
  • Brief, high-intensity sports (1-60 minutes)
  • Single efforts involving strength or power
  • Team sports and intermittent sports
  • Pre-training energy boost if you’re carrying fatigue into a session

Timing

  • Take small doses before and during key competitions and workouts (~100mg)
  • The effects begin to take place soon after consumption
  • Spread throughout the exercise
  • Consume late in exercise as fatigue develops
  • For 1-hour events, take 30-40 minutes before the start
  • For longer events, consume caffeine ~30-40min before difficult sections or the finish

How to take caffeine

You can get your caffeine from the following sources:

  • Capsules
  • Gels
  • Sports blocks/gummies
  • Gum
  • Sports Drinks
  • Coffee*

*Keep in mind that whole food sources of caffeine, like coffee or espresso, can vary wildly in caffeine content. The caffeine in coffee is highly inconsistent, so for competition day it’s best to take a specific capsule supplement, gum or gels.

Important Considerations

  • Abstaining from caffeine days before competition does NOT further enhance benefits of caffeine during competition. 
  • High doses of caffeine can cause negative side effects including: Gut upset, poor concentration, anxiety, confusion, disturbed sleep
  • Never go above the ≤400 milligrams per day limit for adults
Concerns and considerations regarding caffeine supplementation as a performance aid.
Credit: Australian Institute of Sport

Signs you’re consuming too much caffeine

  • You’re consuming more than 400mg per day or more than 3 cups of coffee per day. 1 shot of espresso contains ~135mg of caffeine, an 8-oz drip coffee contains 80-280mg. Remember that other foods like tea, chocolate and energy drinks also include caffeine.
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Increased anxiety, jittery, irritable. Caffeine increases circulating cortisol and adrenaline which can exacerbate anxiety.
  • Using coffee as a meal replacement – this is a big one to avoid especially as athletes, as our energy demands are very high and we can’t afford to skip meals.
  • It’s affecting your gut symptoms (caffeine can be a trigger for gut symptoms. Monitor how your gut reacts to caffeine

Big Picture

  • More is not better! Stick to the smallest effective dosage for you
  • Begin with 1.5mg per kilogram of body weight or about 100mg up to four times during competition day
  • High doses can cause side effects including: gut upset, poor concentration, confusion, anxiety and disturbed sleep
  • Time your caffeine intake away from sleep time, as half still remains in your system 5 hours after ingestion
  • Best to get your caffeine from specifically-dosed sources on competition day (capsules, gum, gels, etc)
  • Trial caffeine during training and before competition day to see how you individually respond

Keep in mind, high caffeine consumption in general increases circulating cortisol and adrenaline, can cause endocrine system disruption, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. For optimal health AND performance, I recommend using caffeine sparingly and using it as a performance aid for amounts exclusively during competition and key workout sessions.

Now get out there and have fun pushing yourself!

Sources:

  1. McLellan, T., J. Caldwell, and H. Lieberman. (2016). A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive function, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 71, 294-312.
  2. Desbrow, B., et al. (2018). Caffeine content of pre-workout supplements commonly used by Australian consumers. Drug Test Anal, 11(3), 523-529.
  3. Pickering, C. and J. Grgic. (2019). Caffeine and Exercise: What Next? Sports Med, 49(7), 1007-1030.

 

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