Caffeine: Give your workouts that little pick me up

Caffeine: Give your workouts that little pick me up

May 2022

A caffeine kick from a cup of coffee may be part of a morning ritual to help get you going for the day or a study aid for late-night work, but for many athletes, whether it’s endurance, strength or power, it is used as a performance enhancer. In fact, caffeine is more than a nutrient, it's also a (legal) drug that is naturally found in some fruits, leaves, beans, cacao and plants. Let’s take a deeper dive into how caffeine works and how you can use it to your advantage in training and competition.

How does caffeine work?

There are a number of mechanisms by which caffeine has been thought to improve performance but the primary process appears to be by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. Let us explain. Structurally, caffeine is very similar to a molecule called adenosine. Typically, when we are tired our body produces more adenosine which binds to receptors in our brains and we feel more fatigued. The more adenosine that binds, the more fatigued we feel. However, because caffeine's structure is so similar to adenosine it can bind to the receptors itself and block adenosine from binding and building up. This effect on the brain is called a “central effect”.

Can caffeine improve performance?

In short, yes. Caffeine is one of the most widely researched ergogenic aids when it comes to performance. Specifically, four major caffeine-induced benefits are:

  • Decreased perception of effort, i.e. hard things feel easier.
  • Delayed time to fatigue, i.e. keep going for longer.
  • Improved alertness
  • Decreased reaction time

For many sports, these performance improvements can be game changing. 

Does everyone respond the same way to caffeine?

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Not all of us will respond the same to caffeine. In fact, some of us (1 in 5 to be specific) may be what is known as non-responders and feel nothing even after a couple of double espressos. The reason for this is that our genetics influence how we respond to caffeine. If you're in the 4 out of 5 that does respond to caffeine then it’s important to understand what works for you. As a general guide a performance-enhancing dose of caffeine can be in the range of 2-6mg/kg of bodyweight and in terms of timing 15-60 minutes prior to performing is a good starting point. Given that this is quite a wide range it's important to figure out where on this spectrum is best for you. 

Tips to figure out what works for you

  • Starting at the bottom end of this dosage range (2-6mg/kg of body weight) and working up is always a better idea than that inverse. The reason is that too much caffeine can have negative impacts and cause feelings of nausea and anxiety. 
  • Getting the timing right can depend not only on how you consume caffeine but also on your genetics again. Generally, food sources that require the caffeine to travel through the gut, e.g. tablets, coffee, and gels can take longer (30-60 mins) to hit whereas caffeine via chewing gum can be quite quick (~15 mins). You may be “fast” or “slow” metabolisers depending on your genetics. The best thing to do may be to trial some different forms of caffeine to see what you feel comfortable with and then refine the timing also.
  • Always save these dry runs for training days; competition can be too much of a risky period to be trying something new. Ideally, you want your plan refined and ready for game day.

As a final note, it's important to remember that some well-timed coffee won’t make up for improper fuelling, but it will complement it. So following a good fuelling strategy is key, keep to your Carb Codes to optimise your fuel stores, and be ready and primed for peak performance.

Dr. Sam Impey

Performance Scientist

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Dr. Sam Impey