Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant, supplement, psychoactive drug (yes, psychoactive drug), and performance enhancer. It is widely used to enhance workouts performance in competition, workdays, all-night study sessions and is a general mood enhancer. According to the FDA, its popularity isn’t likely to change anytime soon, as roughly 80% of adults in the United States use it daily. It is found naturally in over 60 plants, including coffee beans, cacao pods, and tea leaves. As you know, it is widely consumed in sodas, teas, chocolates, pre-workout supplements. Caffeine is tasteless and can be easily put into anything that doesn’t naturally have it. It can be added to any drink, many foods, pills, even bubble gum. Caffeine is also added in many over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
The science and physiology behind caffeine’s work are too complex for this discussion, but we can simplify it. Within 15 to 45 minutes of ingestion, the body fully absorbs caffeine. Once that occurs, the brain recognizes the caffeine as a stimulant, and it shuts off molecules that make you sleepy. When the brain doesn’t have any sleep activity, it alerts the body to go into overdrive. This causes the central nervous system to kick things into a higher gear. Heart rate, blood flow, and brain activity rapidly increase. You begin to feel happier, more alert, energetic, stronger, motivated, all kinds of things that generally allow you to be more productive in a positive way.
There is a price to pay to attain such superpowers as with anything. All that high level of activity can create a mighty crash and burn. Depending on the dose and how your body reacts to caffeine, it can remain in your system up to 10 hours. This can disrupt sleep, cause anxiety, diarrhea, and can exacerbate symptoms of depression when it wears off. With long-term use, it can create chronic issues. Think of running a car at a high rate of speed all day, every day. Things can wear down over time.
Most people have probably heard of caffeine withdrawal. It’s very real. Some common withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, anxiety, and general feelings of depression. That can be scary stuff, but caffeine is regarded as a safe supplement for most adults. It holds no nutritional value, so it isn’t something that ever needs to be taken for health reasons. As with many things, it can be part of a healthy diet when used in moderation. Specifically, it is used a lot by running and other endurance athletes, claiming that it boosts performance. Many swear by it, and they wouldn’t compete without it.
A 2019 study from Brazil sheds some light on this topic to examine caffeine’s effect on running performance. They took a group of high-level runners and put them through a battery of tests, including running at moderate speeds to the point of exhaustion. Some athletes were given 300mg of caffeine (about 3 cups of coffee, or 9 Cokes!), and others were given no caffeine. All the athletes ran at approximately half their full speed for as long as they could. The caffeinated athletes were able to run on average over a minute longer and ran about a mile further than those who were uncaffeinated! That means they were able to run both farther and faster from a high dose of caffeine!
This is of course one of many studies that looks at the effect of performance on caffeine, although it is pretty consistent with the literature. Most studies that look at strength or power often find that there’s no clear difference when taking caffeine. However, endurance-based studies often show positive effects if you want to run farther and faster!
As with any supplement, there’s a series of steps that are recommended to go through prior to consumption. First, ask your doctor if he or she feels it is safe for you to supplement caffeine under rigorous exercise or competition. Assuming you are medically cleared to do so, finding the right product that works for you may be beneficial. Some prefer coffee or a certain pre-workout product. Others may prefer it in a plain supplement form such as a caffeine pill or chewing gum. Our experiment from Brazil used a chewing gum supplemented with 300mg of caffeine.
Remember, 300mg is a high dose, equal to 9 Cokes. I would highly recommend against drinking 9 Cokes for obvious reasons. Start with a smaller dose, and see how you respond. You probably do not need such a high dose to get the most out of caffeine. Find what works for you, and build up to what seems best for you. The FDA states that up to 400mg is safe to consume for adults. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that high for youth athletes, especially to begin with.
So, does caffeine help improve race performance? Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but the answer is probably. Many factors determine your race time. Our study only determined the athletes were able to run farther. This theoretically means that athletes can probably run faster for greater distances. And as every endurance athlete knows, pace must be practiced to optimize your times. With this information, it may be a good idea to give caffeine a try to improve your race time in whatever timed sport you may compete in. Remember, though, it is technically a drug, and it shouldn’t be abused. Take mental notes on how it helps you perform and how you feel, act, and recover outside competition.
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