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Caffeine: when your must-have boost in sports performance is just one cup of coffee away

By Elena Casiraghi, PhD Specialist in Nutrition and Sport Integration - Equipe Enervit Lecturer Theory and Methodology of Training and Functional Evaluation - University of Pavia
Practical information on caffeine ingestion for athletes

  • Take a carbohydrate and caffeine gel or caffeinated drink at the most advanced part of an intense or prolonged workout or competition to get a "boost" and reduce the risk of performance reduction due to the effect on nerve fatigue;
  • If you consume caffeine at the most advanced stages of a competition, consume twice of what you would before the competition. To satisfy the ideal concentration of caffeine per body weight, the sports integration industry has studied complete and practical shots for consumption;
  • If you consume caffeine constantly, in order to enjoy greater benefits during exercise, we recommend a wash out (or abstinence from consumption) at least in the week before the competition;
  • Whether you are a regular caffeine user or a neophyte, always test it in training to understand the effects on your body and best adapt this practice to the conditions of the competition.

Boost your performance

Caffeine is a substance that needs no introduction. We could almost ask ourselves if caffeine was born before humanity. The first data on its use dates back to the Palaeolithic times.

The fruit of the coffee plant, in fact, has always been used to prepare drinks with stimulating properties. Nowadays, it can be found in various foods. First, in coffee, but also in other food and beverages such as chocolate, tea, cola and cappuccino just to name a few.

Coffee is but one of the substances containing caffeine
Caffeine is a substance that for its many benefits has received considerable interest in scientific research. Particularly in sports. In 1970, in fact, it was first observed that caffeine, if taken 1 hour before starting exercise, could increase plasma concentrations of fatty acids - useful as an energy substratum - and increase performance.

Consider that in an intense effort, that is to say at 85% of the maximum oxygen consumption, the intake of caffeine - in the appropriate dosage - can extend the time of exhaustion by 10-20%. This is much more than a marginal gain.

Unlike many sports supplements that claim to improve endurance performance, caffeine stands out because it really works.

In addition, the benefits are borne by both the muscle and the nervous system. For this reason, it becomes a valuable ally both for endurance disciplines and those with a cognitive component such as team games.

Study after study research has shown that, by helping to overcome central nervous fatigue, caffeine taken before or at the beginning of the exercise can significantly increase sports performance in events where the duration of training is 60 minutes or more - and especially during longer events lasting two hours or more.

Caffeine can substantially increase sports performance
However, while this substance has been extensively studied, there is still some discussion about its optimal time of ingestion, i.e. when to consume it and the most effective dosage. Is it really necessary to take caffeine before doing physical exercise or can you take it during exercise? If so, how much is needed? Modern research and cycling performance have tried to provide some answers to these questions.

The study

In a study [Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 August; 41 (8): 850-5], scientists observed whether administering caffeine relatively late during exercise is beneficial for endurance performance and, if so, what type of dosage could be effective.

Fifteen well-trained cyclists (11 males and 4 females) underwent three cycling tests on three different occasions. Each test consisted of 120 minutes of continuous cycling at about 60% of peak oxygen consumption – that is, at moderate intensity. The test included five 2-minute series with 82% oxygen consumption, or at high intensity. Immediately afterwards, all cyclists performed a time trial in which they had to push as many watts as possible in the shortest possible time.

Skillbike classes are ideal for indoor cycling, both alone and in group
Between the three tests, the cyclists had 80 minutes of rest. While resting, they had to consume three different beverage formulations:

  • In the first test, the drink contained 6% carbohydrates.
  • In the second test, the drink contained the same amount of carbohydrates, but a small dose of caffeine was added in a personalized dosage (1.5 mg per kilo of body weight).
  • In the third test, finally, the mixture contained the same concentration of carbohydrates as the previous drink, but the caffeine had been doubled (3 mg / kg).

To remove any possible "placebo" effect, these tests were performed in random order and neither the researchers nor the cyclists knew which drink was being consumed. In addition to measuring chronometer performance, the researchers also examined cyclists' metabolic responses such as blood sugar levels during exercise.

The future of sports nutrition is not the same for all athletes, but a strategy that can be individualised and adapted to each individual.

Findings

The key finding was that taking caffeine in addition to the carbohydrate drink improved performance compared to the carbohydrate drink alone. The results showed that despite the relatively late intake in the cycling trial, performance was improved.
Caffeine molecule
Compared to the carbohydrate-only drink, the low-dose caffeine drink resulted in an improvement of 1 minute and 5 seconds in the time trial (27 minutes and 36 seconds versus 28 minutes and 41 seconds). The intake of high-dose caffeine resulted in further improvement; cyclists completed the time trial in 26 minutes 36 seconds: 2 minutes and 5 seconds faster than the placebo and 1 minute faster than the low-dose caffeine intake.

In practice

There are a couple of important conclusions that can be drawn from this study. First, it seems that caffeine can significantly increase performance, even when taken in the final stages of an event or at the end of exercise. Secondly, a moderate dose of this substance (3 mg per kilo) may offer more benefits than a small amount (1.5mg per kilo).
A small from one ski slope and the other one, and there we go
This is in contrast to pre-exercise caffeine, where some studies have found that a low dose of caffeine can be just as effective in boosting performance as a moderate dose. The study reveals that the main mode of action of caffeine is through suppressing central nervous system fatigue rather than changes in muscle chemistry. Reducing nerve fatigue is useful to allow the body to express a greater intensity.

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