Whilst there are plenty of scenarios in which the mere thought of exercise can fill you with dread, the opportunity for a quick rush of energy in the form of a coffee can provide the motivation required to finally hit that workout. For athletes across the various levels of competitive sport however, caffeine is used as a performance enhancement, with an array of research aligned to support the theory that taking caffeine before competing has an ergogenic effect on the body.
Regular attenders of the gym may be familiar with various forms of pre-workout or a simple can of Red Bull in the changing rooms however the quantity of caffeine required in order to benefit performance has been the subject of significant scrutiny.
How much caffeine should I take and when?
When deciding whether to use caffeine as a form of stimulant before exercise, there are a number of considerations that should be taken into account. The quantity and timing of your caffeine intake, the form in which you take it and your usual caffeine habits all play a part in the impact that caffeine has on your body. In addition to this, there is an individual variability which is impacted by an individuals’ tolerance to caffeine and their body’s natural response.
Research has shown that consuming between 3-6mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight 60 minutes before exercise will aid athletic performance. Understanding the amount of caffeine your body requires in order to perform to its peak is crucial. Genetics play a significant part in an individuals’ tolerance to caffeine and therefore it is important to understand your body and its’ response to caffeine.
All of this contributes to the simplest message; everybody responds to caffeine intake in a different way and therefore identifying what quantities and processes work best for you will lead to finding the best results.
How much caffeine is too much caffeine?
Whilst the majority of individuals will never find themselves in the position of being tested at a major sporting event, it is worth being noted that the official testing bodies in charge of doping within elite sport recognise the benefits of caffeine in athletic performance and have therefore applied a limit to the amount that can be taken. For the Olympic Games, a concentration of 12mg per ml in a sample of an athlete’s urine will result in a failed test. For an average person, this would equate to around 500mg for an average person however body size and tolerance to caffeine will all play a part in impacting the amount of caffeine an individual can consume whilst staying below the legal limit through competition. The prospect of returning a test with beyond the acceptable limit for caffeine in the body would be the result of consuming the equivalent to 8 servings of espresso. With the average espresso containing approximately 80mg of caffeine, that is still an extremely high 660mg of caffeine to consume.
There have been proven benefits to utilising caffeine in an individuals’ sporting routine however it is important to remember that there can be adverse side effects to excessive consumption. Headaches and dehydration are just two of the possible impacts of excessive caffeine consumption as well as an increased dependency.
Caffeine use in elite sport
Since caffeine was taken off the prohibited list of substances in 2004, it has been widely used by athletes in a plethora of different sports. Research has shown an increase in the use of caffeine in Olympic sports from 2004 to 2015. Throughout this process, it was identified that athletes engaged in individual sports or sports that have an increased aerobic dependency are more prone to using caffeine in competition.
It has been shown that three quarters (or 75%) of elite athletes use caffeine to aid their sports performance and studies have shown that doing so can aid performance by 1-3%. Whilst such a small amount may not make a significant difference to a casual gym-goer looking to improve their general fitness, to an elite athlete, that small percentage could make the difference between winning and losing.
Between the years of 1984-2004, WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) banned high levels of caffeine in athletes due to its’ positive impact on performance. Within this construct however, the variability at which an individual will metabolise caffeine and the amount of caffeine consumed as part of an athlete’s regular diet made the results almost indistinguishable to determine between those taking caffeine for performance enhancement and those consuming a regular amount.
Whilst the agency took caffeine off the list of prohibited, allowing its use in competition, once more, there is a carefully moderated limit to the quantities allowed. WADA explains that, for 2022, caffeine is not considered a prohibited substance but is included in the 2022 Monitoring Program.
Utilising Caffeine as part of your workout routine
If you are looking to utilise caffeine in your workout routine, a consistent approach to a small increase on your usual daily amount of caffeine will provide an insight into how your body reacts. Starting with a caffeine source consistent with your usual intake at around 100mg will provide an adequate provision of energy for your workout or fixture. After a period of time, manipulating the quantity or source of your caffeine to suit your personal requirements will lead two more tailored results.
Despite the extensive marketing, pre-workout supplements contain more than just caffeine and therefore may not be best suited to your personal workout routine. If you are looking to utilise caffeine for your sports performance, moving straight to pre-workout may not be the most practical solution to your energy or performance concerns. Whilst pre-workout supplements are not necessarily bad for your health, utilising your energy source for workouts or competitive games in moderation will be the key to not only ensuring a consistent approach, but one that provides the most adequate form of energy whilst minimising any potential risks to your health.