Athletes can improve their performance with caffeine. This is even universally acknowledged in the exercise science. However, scientists, athletes, and coaches also believe that one should quit consuming caffeine before a few days or weeks before a big sports event.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, these views about caffeine and performance are out of date and someone can heavily drink coffee every day and still can perform well when needed.
Most people prefer to have caffeine to kick-start their day. Caffeine is one of the world’s most popular mind-altering substances that is used by millions of people to quicken their slow morning brain function and invigorate alertness throughout the day.
When caffeine is taken an hour or so before exercise, it enables most athletes to run, swim or bike or lets them perform a little faster or more strenuously than if they do not take caffeine first. In fact, caffeine makes it easier for you to burn fat. It also boosts up alertness which makes exercise feel less strenuous. (Caffeine is not banned in sports, though very high doses are not acceptable).
But people using caffeine tend to get habituated to its effects. Many amongst us who have seen their morning consumption increase by a cup or three can attest this. Due to this reason, athletes have been advised to stay away from drinking coffee or anything else for the entire week before a major sports competition. This is based on the theory that avoiding coffee should decrease their habituation and increase the impact of caffeine on the day of the sports event.
However, Bruno Gualano, a professor of physiology and nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil does not agree to this. The professor who himself is a recreational cyclist and a dedicated coffee drinker says that as a good Brazilian, coffee is part of my diet. He believes that athletes can benefit from the intake of caffeine before an event, even if they do not stay away from the caffeine before the event.
To test the idea, the professor and his fellows recruited 40 competitive male cyclists from Sao Paulo and invited them to the university’s human performance laboratory for conducting some health and performance tests. They also questioned the riders about their normal intake of caffeine. They were asked about how many cups of coffee, cola, tea, Red Bull and so on they were drinking every day or on a weekly basis.
Based on the information gathered from the riders, the researchers classified them into a low-caffeine group, a moderate-caffeine group and a high-caffeine group.
These riders then reported to the laboratory three more times. At every visit, they completed a specialized time trial in which they rode as hard as they could until they had burned about 450 calories. The task was designed by the researchers to take the riders for about 30 minutes. (They were instructed to avoid eating or drinking anything in the morning before coming to the laboratory.)
An hour before one ride, they ingested a tablet containing about 400 milligrams of caffeine which is an amount equivalent to about four cups of regular coffee.
An hour before another ride, they took an identical-looking tablet which contained only gelatin as a placebo. The riders were not told about what was contained in the tablets.
The riders were not given any tablets before their final ride.
Later on, the researchers compared the times of the riders.
Almost all of the riders had pedaled hardest and fastest after ingesting the caffeine pill, completing their ride 3.3 percent faster on average than when they had no pill and 2.2 percent faster than after taking the placebo. For comparison, a 2 to 3 percent gain in performance can reduce several minutes from a recreational runner’s marathon race time.
The interesting part was, the results from the tests were the same whether the riders normally were light, moderate or heavy caffeine users. The riders who generally consumed large amounts of coffee or other caffeine drinks every day received the same boost from caffeine as was received by the light coffee drinkers, even if they did not stay away from caffeine for days before the tests.
Dr. Gualano says that no matter the habitual caffeine intake in the diet, acute caffeine supplementation can enhance performance.
He further adds that this finding could help athletes who might welcome a performance boost from caffeine, but not at the cost of avoiding coffee for days before a sports event.
But there are noteworthy caveats. This study was done on fit young men. Dr. Gualano says that whether women and those amongst us in less enviable physical condition will respond similarly to caffeine before exercise needs to be studied.
Ingesting large doses of caffeine also can lead to undesirable and even dangerous side effects like headaches, jitters, heart palpitations and stomach upset, even in those people who regularly consume caffeine.
If you are keen to use caffeine for enhancing your physical performance, Dr. Gualano advises to start with small doses. Taking one cup of coffee an hour before exercise may be sufficient to ease and improve your subsequent workout.