If you enjoy a daily coffee, you are no stranger to the perks of caffeine. And when it comes to athletes, the substance has a similar effect. There are plenty of studies showing that caffeine is beneficial when consumed before sports training or competition. It is even considered a performance enhancer by many. Let’s take a look at why.
The International Olympic Committee is still unsure how to treat caffeine – it came off its ‘banned substances’ list in 2004 due to the inability to properly measure the effects of it on the body. It still, however, remains closely monitored from time to time. It’s thought that about three quarters of elite athletes have a caffeine regimen. For example, Scottish cyclist and multi-gold medalist Chris Hoy is so committed to his potential caffeine edge he is said to lug a coffee machine and grinder to every competition, which included the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
These days, many athletes don’t bother with drinking the substance. Instead they take their caffeine in the form of a gel or energy bar, especially on race day. But when it comes to taste and enjoyment, there really is no substitute.
So, what exactly is it about caffeine that has athletes racing for it?
1. IT BOOSTS PERFORMANCE
The interest in caffeine as an ergogenic aid began in the late 70s thanks to a scientist by the name of David Costill. His team examined the effect of 330mg of caffeine when taken one hour before cycling to exhaustion at 80 per cent of maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max). The trained cyclists improved their performance from 75 minutes with no caffeine to 96 minutes after caffeine, showing that caffeine can reduce fatigue, allowing athletes to perform for longer periods of time.
The US Sports Academy studied the effect of caffeine on 30 male and female university swimmers and the results were similarly spectacular. It was found that supplementing a moderate amount of caffeine (3-6mg per kilogram of body weight) can be beneficial in improving short-distance, high-intensity swimming performance, but possibly only in trained athletes. On average, the females improved by 0.31 seconds in the trial while the males improved by 0.18 seconds. These times might appear small to the non-athlete, but in a sport where every millisecond counts, it could mean the difference between a medal or not.
2. IT INCREASES FOCUS
Your brain’s blood flow increases with the amount of caffeine consumed. As a result, neurotransmission becomes more efficient and your alertness, concentration, decision-making, problem-solving and neuromuscular coordination improves.
In 2008, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research reported on the cognitive effects of caffeine on athletes. It stated that caffeine taken before a strenuous training exercise can help sustain exercise intensity and also improve concentration, in particular when an athlete hasn’t had enough sleep. This is especially true if the athlete consumes only small amounts of caffeine over a few days.
During simulated combat practice in the military, caffeine has also been found helpful in promoting greater concentration in rifle marksmanship and target detection, indicating it can also boost focus during stressful activities.
3. IT EASES MUSCLE PAIN
Robert Motl, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, says he found that caffeine affects a system in the brain and spinal cord involved in pain processing, which led him to speculate it could reduce pain. And so in 2009 Motl, with a number of other researchers, studied 25 fit uni guys as they put them through two high-intensity exercise sessions – one session following a placebo pill and another after consuming a caffeine pill equal to 2.5-3 cups of coffee. The men were questioned at regular intervals about the level of muscle pain in their quadriceps and it was found there was a significant reduction in pain after having the caffeine compared to the placebo pill.
4. IT ABOUNDS IN ANTIOXIDANTS
Coffee is chock-full of disease-ravaging antioxidants, the main ones being polyphenols and flavonoids. The polyphenols, such as quinines, chlorogenic acid, trigonelline and tocopherols work with other nutrients to provide a number of super health benefits including protection against heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. An athlete whose heart works more efficiently and is more resistant to disease will clearly perform more effectively.
5. IT ELEVATES METABOLISM AND BURNS FAT
If you didn’t think the above points were enough to make you want to run to your nearest barista, caffeine accelerates fat burning and can increase your metabolism. The Australian Institute of Sport found that caffeine triggers the muscles to begin using fat as an energy source instead of carbohydrate sugars. Therefore, caffeine is a good way of getting extra energy out of your body’s reserves during an event.
Not working out? A Danish study found as little as 50mg of caffeine significantly increases resting energy expenditure. This means that without doing anything, you can actually metabolise more when you consume caffeine.
The takeaway from all this? A few cups a day may just help you go that little bit faster or harder for a little bit longer, and may truly make a difference to your training and comp sports. So, here’s cheers to a short black, large flat white, or whatever brew takes your fancy!
Do you use coffee to boost your sporting performance? Can you notice a difference to your training or game? Let us know in the comments section below.