Not Your Average Cuppa Joe
by Tania Kapp
Caffeine is a stimulant that occurs naturally in the leaves, stems, seeds and roots of more than 60 plant species. It can be found in products such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and fizzy drinks, as well as over-the-counter and prescription medication, diuretics and pain relievers. Caffeine is also an ingredient of many energy and sports drinks and gels. It is one of the cheapest and most freely available legal drugs, if you define a drug as a substance that alters normal body function, leaving aside the social baggage for a moment. Surprisingly, people in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are thought to be some of the foremost caffeine consumers in the world – they chug down 400 milligrams from coffee a day.
Some consider caffeine to be a highly addictive drug, while others view it as a helpful stimulant that increases concentration, alertness and focus. But caffeine, similar to aspirin, does not always deserve the negative reviews it receives. Many of my clients (who are admittedly healthy athletes) are stunned when I suggest that they increase their caffeine intake before training and racing.
It is worth noting that a daily intake of 300 milligrams of caffeine (equivalent to three or four cups of coffee) is suggested for a healthy lifestyle, but consumption in excess of this may result in unwanted side-effects.
How it works
Caffeine works on the central nervous system, increasing alertness, vigilance, focus and concentration. It also stimulates the release of adrenaline in the body, mobilising the release of fatty acids from fat cells which may result in more fat being used for energy during sport, thereby sparing valuable glycogen stores. This effect may be short-lived and inconsistent, varying from athlete to athlete. Caffeine can increase the release of calcium from its storage sites in muscle cells, increasing the strength of muscle contractions.
The ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effects of caffeine have been observed in a wide range of sports, including endurance events, stop-and-go disciplines such as soccer and racquet sports and even high-intensity sports that require sustained activity lasting from one to 60 minutes. While the benefits of caffeine on short-term, high-intensity exercise involving strength and power are less clear-cut, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that caffeine improves endurance.This is predominantly by decreasing fatigue and perceived effort, which means the athlete can sustain an optimal work level for longer and do so without compromising skill.
An analysis by UK researchers of 40 studies on caffeine and performance concluded that it significantly improves endurance, on average by 12 per cent. The performance-enhancing benefit of a decreased dependence on glycogen as a source of energy is somewhat more controversial, but recent research has shown that caffeine can enhance, and not inhibit, glycogen resynthesis during the recovery phase of exercise.
There are various protocols for caffeine consumption to enhance sport performance, including before and during training and events. A low to moderate dose of three to six milligrams for each kilogram of body
weight has been found to be effective, and there is no benefit in higher doses. While coffee, energy drinks and gels are the most commonly used sources, the performance enhancing effects of caffeine are even greater and achieved sooner after intake when it is consumed in the anhydrous state (powder form). It is important to experiment in training to determine individual supplement timing for optimal performance at the lowest effective dose, because more is better does not apply to caffeine.
From a practical point of view, most athletes choose to supplement 15 to 60 minutes prior to an event. Beneficial effects are experienced for between one and three hours in regular caffeine users (300 milligrams/ day) but that buzz can last as long as six hours in non-users (<50 milligrams/day). Effects may extend beyond this point, dependent on individual response. Because the effects of caffeine vary so much between individuals, there was a time when athletes were advised to consume no caffeine for 24 to 48 hours prior to an event to enhance the beneficial effects of supplementation. But since the effects appear to be similar either way, it now appears that you may as well have your regular cuppa if that’s what you are used to, but it’s best to add no or very little milk, as milk delays the absorption of caffeine.
Don’t overdo it
The side-effects of consuming too much caffeine are pretty unpleasant and include anxiety, trembling, sleeplessness, headaches, palpitations and gastrointestinal instability. Individual responses to caffeine vary, with some individuals being drastically more sensitive than others. On balance, scientific research suggests that the link between long-term caffeine consumption and health problems such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and bone mineral loss is not as clear as first thought, but there is a definite link between raised low-density, lipids, density cholesterol levels and heavy coffee consumption. This is associated with certain fats in coffee, which are more pronounced in boiled coffee than the instant or filter variety. Bear in mind that caffeine may also inhibit the absorption of iron.
It is popularly believed that caffeine consumption causes dehydration, however small to moderate doses appear to have minor effects on the overall hydration of habitual users. No significant difference in fluid balance has been found due to caffeine in exercise.
Does it really work?
Many scientists believe that the benefits of caffeine on sport performance are all in the minds of the athletes, who perform better because they believe it works. This may be true to an exent, but there is more than sufficient evidence indicating that caffeine does have performance-enhancing effects when taken in the correct dose, at the right times by responding individuals over a range of sports. It is important to remember that individual responses to caffeine differ, resulting in enhanced performance in most people, with some not responding at all and others responding negatively. Further influencing factors include the condition of the athlete, the mode, intensity and duration of exercise, and the dose of caffeine. Remember the effect of caffeine on other functions such as sleep, hydration and refuelling when considering caffeine supplementation.
Five things you should know about the world’s favourite stimulant
Not only in your coffee
It’s found in varying quantities in more than over 60 plants, where it acts as a natural pesticide protecting the plant against bugs.
Under-rated energy drink
Studies have shown a marked increase in the performance of endurance athletes who consumed five milligrams or more of caffeine per kilogram of body mass, pre-race.
Choose your source
Tea contains more caffeine than coffee, but a typical serving is brewed much weaker so you’ll still get more of a buzz from a cup of coffee.
But not too much
Upwards of 350 mg of caffeine a day (about five cups of instant) can cause a physical dependence. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, headaches and fatigue.
What about de-caf?
It’s not entirely without caffeine –- the recognised world standard for decaffeinated coffee is 97 per cent.