Caffeine: a central nervous system stimulant. Some people rely on it to get them through the day, others find it causes havoc with their body clocks. Evidence suggests it is a highly effective and legal sports supplement which benefits both endurance performance and high-intensity power sports. The recommended dose varies but around 3mg per kg of body weight is considered to be effective in increasing aerobic performance and decreasing the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). For reference, there is about 70mg in an espresso, 80mg in a can of Red Bull (along with a lot of sugar), and up to 200mg in a regular coffee, although this totally depends. Some may choose to invest in powdered caffeine supplements or tablets which they take pre-workout, use caffeinated gels during a long session or simply drink a cup coffee before training. Any of these will do the job just as effectively, and coffee is probably the cheapest option and it doesn't contain any other chemicals or ingredients you may not be familiar with.
Generally, caffeine takes 30-60 minutes to have an effect, and the half-life (the time it takes to process and eliminate half of the drug from your body, the other half can take much, much longer) is around 3-5 hours. This all depends on how caffeine sensitive you are and many factors can play a part. But as with any supplement, it's important to see how your body responds to its effects long before an important race or competition. Some people might be more sensitive and choose not to take caffeine, for example if they find that it makes them jittery, gives them a racing heart and increases their pre-race nerves (and toilet visits). Others, may need a stronger dose if they don't feel the benefit from their regular morning Starbucks.
All these points make caffeine seem a great idea for the competitive athlete, what's not to like about something almost guaranteed to improve your performance, cheaply and legally?!
It can wreck havoc on your sleep.
There is a link between caffeine intake, increased daytime tiredness and poor sleep quality. And as we know, sleep provides the ultimate recovery opportunity. Adenosine builds up in the body throughout the hours we are awake, acting as a 'sleep pressure'. The longer we are awake, the greater the pressure to sleep (hence why napping is generally advised against for most people). Caffeine reduces the effect of adenosine and therefore reduces the sleep pressure - this is why so many people struggle to sleep if they drink coffee late at night. Even if you're someone who falls asleep easily after consuming caffeine, it's highly likely your quality of sleep is nowhere near what it could be and your body won't be going through the same repair processes. The amount of deep sleep - most important for physical rejuvenation - is reduced after consuming caffeine. Regular consumption will likely leave you feeling sluggish and reliant on increased caffeine consumption, your long-term performance may not be as good, and your injury risk might increase as a result.
If you're someone who still wants some of that daily juice, remember that half of the caffeine is still going to be in your body up to 5 hours after consuming it. So a double espresso at 4pm to give you an energy boost before your evening workout isn't very different from drinking a single espresso at 9pm whilst you're trying to wind down for the night.
Optimal caffeine timing can be a real balancing act for sports performance and recovery:
· Ideally, cut down on caffeine consumption as much as possible. You really don't need multiple cups of coffee a day
· Try cutting it out occasionally, that way you won't get used to its effect and you'll get the most performance benefit from it when it really matters
· If you do want to make use of it, 30-60 minutes pre-race or training is most beneficial
· Try to stick to black coffee or espressos, a flat white is as fancy as you need to get. Any extra syrups, sugars or creamers will bring more drawbacks than gains! The same with gels and pre-workout powders, check out the ingredients list to see exactly what you're consuming
· Remember that with every rush there will be a crash. You may already know this if you're someone who relies on several coffees or energy drinks to get you through the day, but it's especially important to note if you're thinking of taking it during a race
As with any supplement, moderation is key. Focus on the timing of your caffeine consumption rather than the quantity for the best balance of performance enhancement and recovery.