Caffeine is one of the only legal, proven effective performance enhancing drugs around. If you’re an Olympic or NCAA athlete there are some limits to how much you can have in your bloodstream in competition, but for most of us mortals we’re free to figure out the best dosage and timing to make caffeine work for us. It’s a boost worth trying for many adult athletes.
Caffeine is a magical chemical. It perks us up in the morning and anytime we’re feeling a bit droopy. Nearly 90% of Americans consume some form of caffeine on a daily basis, making it by far our most popular psychoactive stimulant drug of choice. We know we love (and may have become dependent upon) caffeine but for many of us its use is confined to an automatic addition of coffee to breakfast that we don’t give much thought to. While no one will argue that caffeine isn’t great at helping us wake up in the morning, it has so much more potential. We know it wards off fatigue, but are there other impacts of caffeine on the human body? How do we unlock its full potential? With a little bit of planning and consideration you can reap benefits beyond mere early morning consciousness from your caffeine intake.
It delays your perception of fatigue. Caffeine’s stimulant properties work by blocking receptors in your brain for a neurochemical called adenosine. As your day wears on, adenosine normally tells your brain to slow nerve cell activity and get sleepy. Caffeine molecules look enough like adenosine to your body that it’s able to snag adenosine’s place in these receptors and tell your nerve cells to do pretty much the opposite- wake up. It causes your pituitary gland to release adrenaline which kicks off your body’s “flight or fight” response. Now you’re feeling ready to rumble.
It increases fat oxidation. Studies over the years have shown that caffeine can increase fat oxidation during low intensity exercise by nearly 27%. This may be the result of it stimulating epinephrine release in your body. It does not however increase overall energy expenditure, meaning that you won’t need to take in more calories just because you are including caffeine in your fueling strategy. It does, however, mean that you are tapping into your fat reserves a little more readily.
It lowers resistance in your airways. You may breathe a little easier as caffeine stimulates your endothelial cells to release nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide is a gas that helps relax and widen blood vessels. This is good news for all of your muscles since any improvement in blood flow can help them more effectively receive oxygen.
It does also increase blood flow to your kidneys which in turn increases sodium excretion. This is the reason caffeine is considered a diuretic. You’ll want to factor this in when planning your hydration and electrolyte intake for your workouts when using caffeine.
The ideal strategy for using caffeine to maximize your athletic performance is going to vary from person to person. Variables such as body size, caffeine tolerance and metabolism make it important to test out your strategy gradually. Caffeine has, on average, about a 5 hour half life. How long it lingers in your system exactly is highly individual. The half life can be as low as 2.5 hours in smokers, and up to 15 hours in pregnant women, for example. As far as drugs go, caffeine is really good at getting into your system. It has pretty much 100% oral bioavailability, with non-liquid forms being the most effective. The peak level of caffeine in your body will hit you about 45-60 minutes after you take it.
So, where do you begin with your strategic, performance enhancing use of caffeine? Daily doses up to 400mg are generally considered safe, but more is not better. Caffeine becomes toxic at a dose around 1.2g. Be wary of extreme coffee brands which tout levels approaching that. You can suffer from tachycardia (rapid heart beat), altered mentation and even seizure. 10-14g of caffeine can be life-threatening. In other words, don’t go crazy with it. Stay under the 400mg radar.
Some people will limit their regular daily use of caffeine (ie their morning cup of coffee or tea) in the weeks leading up to an important athletic event so that they can be more sensitized to it in competition. You’ll have to decide if any withdrawal symptoms you may experience will be worth it. They can include headache, difficulty concentrating and anxiety among other unpleasantries.
For a gym session under an hour or an event like a 5k run you’ll want to get your caffeine dose in before you begin. An 8oz cup of coffee contains roughly 95mg of caffeine so that could be a good amount to start to experiment with in training. Since you’ll feel the maximum effects of caffeine around the 45- 60 minute mark, try consuming it about 30 minutes before you start. This will give it some time to kick in. If caffeine makes you jittery, have a little something to eat with it. Food will delay some of its absorption into your bloodstream.
Long distance events are where caffeine really can give you your biggest boost. You might want to wait until you are 30 minutes or more into a race or workout before taking your first hit of caffeine. What caffeine giveth it also taketh away. You get energized at first but then crash and feel even more tired as it wears off. So don’t let it. Once you start taking caffeine during an event, keep up with it at regular intervals so it doesn’t have a chance to wear off before you are done.
You should still respect the 400mg daily limit, so factor its use into your overall race nutrition plan.
Be sure to have your last dose of caffeine at least 6 hours before you go to bed to avoid affecting your sleep. While some people do in fact have a lower stimulant response to caffeine, it’s still not a good idea to take it late in the day. Even if you fall asleep without a problem after having it, you are likely to have less restful sleep and wake up later in the night.
Caffeine is definitely not for everyone. If you have any type of cardiac issues, anxiety or panic disorders you’ll probably be better off without it. If you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant it isn’t the best time to double down on caffeine. Don’t give it to kids. Most importantly, make sure to discuss its use with your doctor.