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Can Caffeine Improve Sports Performance?

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Though it used to get a bad rap, caffeine is now linked to a variety of health bonuses like preventing type II diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, speeding up metabolism, and easing headaches. As they do with most anything that offers the opportunity for better performance, athletes have started chugging caffeine-enhanced sports drinks and gels, looking for a safe and legal way to enhance endurance. 


But does caffeine really do all that much for athletic performance, or is there a placebo effect at work here? Do caffeine’s benefits outweigh its potential risks? And how much is too much? 


The Most Widely Used Drug
Almost everyone ingests caffeine at some point in their lives, and most do it regularly. It’s everywhere: in coffee, tea, colas, chocolate, and as a naturally occurring substance in many plants. Because its use is so widespread, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed caffeine from its list of banned substances in January 2004. The Agency has frequently threatened to restore caffeine to the list since then, but has not done so. 


Anyone who makes the daily Starbuck’s run (or two, or five) is familiar with the ways in which caffeine acts on the central nervous system (CNS) to reduce fatigue and pain perception, improve mental acuity, and improve endurance. 


We know that our morning cuppa joe keeps us sharp and alert at work, but what does it really do for us on the track? Most sports scientists agree that caffeine really does have ergogenic (performance-enhancing) benefits, but they disagree on the nature of those benefits, and how best to reap them. 


According to Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada, it is “unequivocal that caffeine improves performance,” but it may do so through a different mechanism than researchers previously thought. Rather than encourage muscles to use fat as fuel instead of glycogen, as old school science would have it, sports experts now believe that caffeine releases calcium stored in muscles and affects the brain’s sense of exhaustion. 


In other words, caffeine doesn’t really enhance high intensity athletic performance so much as restore it. You won’t really be able to run harder, although it might feel that way; but you’ll be able to maintain your peak performance for a longer period of time. 


The Law of Diminishing Returns
Caffeine is not a perfect substance, however. The sad paradox is that the more you use it, the fewer benefits you receive. Terry Graham, chairman of the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences of the University of Guelph in Canada found that athletes who consumed high levels of caffeine for prolonged periods actually performed worse than athletes who did not use the drug. This is because caffeine is extremely habit-forming; you need more and more to get the same effect over time and the withdrawal is a killer. 


Also, caffeine does have its share of negative side effects. The most common are insomnia, nausea, anxiety, dependence, gastrointestinal problems (especially heartburn), and muscle cramps. Many athletes avoid caffeine because its diuretic properties increase the risk of dehydration unless fluids and electrolytes are replaced. Those with diabetes must also be careful about caffeine usage, because the substance raises blood sugar. 


You should speak to your doctor about your caffeine usage because of its potential impacts on a variety of medical conditions and interactions with prescription drugs. As with any new supplement or exercise regimen, he or she can advise you on what is safe for your body. 


Liquid Lightning
If you decide that you do want to begin a caffeine regimen to jack up your competitive edge, it’s incredibly important to get the amounts and timing just right. Caffeine effects vary greatly depending on the intensity and duration of your activity and the amount, frequency, and timing of ingestion. 


For optimal effects:


  • Energy sports drinks with caffeine can help replace the vitamins and electrolytes you may lose during intense exercise, so they may be a good option. Remember to drink twelve to sixteen ounces of fluid for every thirty minutes of exercise. Just a 3 percent loss of body fluids can reduce strength by 12 percent.
  • Avoid excessive amounts. Most experts recommend three to six milligrams per one kilogram of body weight to balance positive and negative effects of the drug. To give you an idea, 250–500 mg is about two to three cups of coffee.
  • Consume no more than one hour prior activity, and continue use during competitions that last longer than an hour.
  • Habitual users should abstain from all caffeine usage for seven days prior to competition, although they should also incorporate it into their training regimens. 


Caffeine can be a great sports-enhancing substance. As with any other drug, however, its use needs to be carefully monitored. But if you follow your body’s cues when it comes to consumption, it just might help you take that leap to the next level.

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