Caffeine is one of the most consumed stimulants in the world, with over 90% of adults consuming it in some form. With coffee, unsurprisingly, being the most popular. But caffeine is also found in a range of other products such as tea, energy drinks, sports gels, chocolate, sports drinks, and supplements like pre-workout and fat burners (see table below). There are a lot of beliefs about caffeine; particularly that it’s the thing that will get you going in the morning, or the thing that stops you from getting sleepy. Interesting enough, a study has shown that those who regularly consumed coffee rated themselves as waking up more tired than those who tended to avoid it (1), which begs the question – are we using it as effectively as we possibly could?
Benefits of Caffeine
Consuming caffeine after a night of poor sleep has been proven to decrease our perceived tiredness throughout the day (1). It can also improve our mood, attention span, reaction time and even short term memory shortly after consuming it (2).
What about Sports Performance?
It is well known that caffeine can affect performance in sports. It has both physiological benefits in strength sports (weight/powerlifting) right through to endurance exercise; as well as cognitive improvements in team or individual sports (such as rugby and tennis)(3,4). Management for the specific sport and individual is an art to ensure an adequate amount is consumed to get the benefit, without any side effects. It has been found that caffeine intake plateaus at ~3mg/kg or ~200mg (3).
How to Use Caffeine
Oral ingestion of caffeine takes 30-60 minutes to reach peak blood caffeine levels, other forms (such as gum or strips) are absorbed more rapidly through the mouth. This needs to be taken into account when utilising caffeine for more acute sports (such as team sports that last 1.5h), and longer duration sports (ultra-marathon running and golf). Where you want to hit your peak caffeine concentration will be vital in determining how you are going to best manage it.
Consideration of Caffeine Consumption
There is no doubt that caffeine has well-known benefits. But large caffeine doses, over 400mg or about 3-4 cups of coffee, have caused negative side effects including increased heart rate, sweating and anxiety levels. And not to mention gastro distress (we're sure many of you have been there).
But the big question is whether the benefits that we assume we are getting from caffeine consumption, may, in fact, be from the reversal of the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal — rather than performance actually being improved.
A 2018 study (1) explains that even habitual caffeine users experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms every night. It has been shown that caffeine can hang around in your body for as long as 16 hours in some individuals — which can delay the onset of tiredness and affect your quality of sleep. Creating that cycle of dependence.
What about my Afternoon Coffee?
For most people, caffeine stays in your system for 10 hours. So rather than thinking you need to have your pre-training coffee just before you start, consider the following:
- Aim to have your final coffee 8 hours before bed (ie 2 pm if you are in bed at 10 pm). It will still be functioning in your system for that afternoon training session.
- Ensure you have an adequate lunch (as good as dinner) to ensure you don’t get the ‘afternoon slump’.
- Have a pre-training snack high in carbs (30 mins pre) to increase your blood glucose through food rather than caffeine.
- Use a non-caffeinated pre-workout to get other benefits (beta-alanine and vasodilators).
- Take notes of your total food consumption, sleep quality and hydration and see if there is anything else you can do to minimise the need for coffee in the afternoon.
Note: For competition, we will still utilise caffeine in the evening and sacrifice sleep if necessary. But this is managed accordingly with the individual.
Final Words We are not saying stop your caffeine intake, it is about better management and understanding. Simply, push your first coffee later in the day and remove the one in the afternoon. You may find that you are covering up poor nutrition and sleep, you may need to approach this differently (even a simple change to de-caffeinated if it’s the taste/habit you are looking for).
As much as we understand that lower intake could be of benefit for us, we still love our coffee – we just appreciate it even more now.
If you want to learn more about how to use caffeine to your advantage in your event, head to the CGN Academy. The CGN Academy is the newest community for everything sport and exercise nutrition, and includes up-to-date evidence and ongoing discussions like this one. You will learn about a range of different aspects of sports nutrition, and we provide you with practical advice on how to trial it in your own training.
To get your 7-day free trial and to find out more, head to https://www.conradgoodhew.com/cgnacademy, or get in touch with the team personally.
Caffeine from common sources
*Amount of caffeine varies by brand, strength and type
O'Callaghan F, Muurlink O, Reid N. Effects of caffeine on sleep quality and daytime functioning. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy. 2018;Volume 11:263-271.
Irwin C, Khalesi S, Desbrow B, McCartney D. Effects of acute caffeine consumption following sleep loss on cognitive, physical and occupational performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine. 2019;64:S169.
AIS Sports Supplement Framework Caffeine - Sport Australia. Available from: https://www.ais.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/1000498/36194_Sport-supplement-fact-sheets-Caffeine-v6.pdf
Southward K, Rutherfurd-Markwick KJ, Ali A. The effect of acute caffeine ingestion on endurance performance: A systematic review and Meta–analysis. Sports Medicine. 2018;48(8):1913–28
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