Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Supplements, Part 3: Caffeine

Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote for my athletes last year about caffeine consumption. I received a lot of great feedback and personal anecdotes from athletes as well as a bit of criticism about my encouragement of the use of a performance enhancing drug. I would like to address this first. Specifically, I do not draw much of a distinction between drinking coffee and taking caffeine pills. Personally, I don't buy the argument that taking caffeine pills to increase performance is unethical because it is done solely for performance (as opposed to drinking coffee because you like the taste). My opinion is that if you are to label anything that is done solely to increase performance as unethical, then training itself must be unethical. As a coach, I am in the business of advising athletes how to take a more structured approach to their training as opposed to just training how they feel when they feel like it. If you are just drinking coffee because you like it and it makes you feel good without putting much thought into how it affects performance, you are probably not optimizing your caffeine consumption. Make no mistake about it though; caffeine is a performance enhancing drug, and it should be put in a different category than nutrients found in your regular diet. Like I said in the first blog, you must ask yourself 3 questions with any supplement you are considering taking:

1. Is it safe? In the case of caffeine, the answer is usually yes. Caffeine is safe for most people provided the dosage is low to moderate. Because caffeine is found in so many things we eat and drink, you probably know already if you have an adverse reaction to it. Most of the long term negative side-effects appear with repeated excessive consumption over long periods of time. In the short term, most people will self-restrict consumption because they feel jittery and find it hard to concentrate.
2. Is it effective? So many supplements out there are unproven. This is not necessarily to say that they are not effective; only that there have not been enough scientific studies to show if they really work or not. Caffeine is one of the few exceptions. There have been enough studies on caffeine usage by endurance athletes that it is safe to say that the performance benefit is proven and significant.
3. Is it legal? Prior to 2004, caffeine usage was restricted by the IOC. Currently it is legal in any amount. I asked a representative from the USADA what the rationale for this change was and he said that it was because there is caffeine in so many products and that it is impossible to know how much you are really taking.

The number of coffee drinkers in the U.S. has risen 7% in the last 2 years. My guess is that the amount of caffeine being consumed has risen even more than that but truthfully we don't know. The FDA does not regulate caffeine, so you never know how much you are getting in your coffee, your soda or whatever. A University of Florida Study in 2003 found that amongst the major chains, Dunkin Donuts coffee had the lowest caffeine content (145 mg for a 16-oz cup) and Starbucks was by far the highest (ranging from 259-564 mg for a 16-oz cup). Though most experts agree that less than 250 mg a day will not cause any significant problems, excessive consumption (300 mg or more) is known to be a contributing factor for osteoporosis, miscarriages, reduced fertility and an increase in the plasma level of total cholesterol. Though more research needs to be done, some believe that excessive consumption can also lead to a difficulty in regulating metabolism and blood sugar and may contribute to fibrocystic breast disease and even cancer.

Starbucks in particular has made a very successful business out of getting us hooked on the drug (though ironically enough, the word "caffeine" does not appear anywhere on their website or nutritional literature), and many other coffee shops and restaurants are following suit their own brands of "high octane" coffee. 10 years ago, your average "2-cup a day" coffee drinker was probably only consuming 200-300 mg. Today, if you have 2 cups a day at Starbucks, you may be consuming over 1000!

Now, I don't want to make it sound like the effects of caffeine are all bad. Aside from helping you feel more alert and awake, caffeine can be a powerful performance enhancer. Caffeine has been shown to help increase time to exhaustion, increase sprint power and decrease perceived exertion in endurance athletes. Of all of these, the lowering of perceived exertion is the most proven and perhaps the most important. If you feel better, you can push yourself harder and longer. In racing, the difference between winning and losing may come down to who can push themselves just a little bit harder. In training and recreational exercise, a decrease in perceived exertion may mean that you are capable of getting better quality (and enjoyment!) out of your workouts. Caffeine is not banned or even regulated (any more) by the IOC or the WADA, so you can legally take as much as you want. Prior to 2004, usage was restricted by the IOC, though the amount required to cause a positive test was far above what most athletes would require to have a performance enhancing effect.

The January, 2005 issue of National Geographic had an extensive article on caffeine consumption. I thought that one of the most interesting features showed pictures of brain MRIs for regular caffeine consumers and non-caffeine consumers. The non consumer's brain on caffeine was lit up like a Christmas tree, whereas the regular consumer's brain only looked normal with caffeine, but barely functional without it. And this leads me to my point. Caffeine can be an extremely powerful performance enhancer, but if you have 500 mg of caffeine every morning, all that 500 mg of caffeine will do is make you feel normal. You won't really start to feel the benefit until you have more than 500 mg. As a side note, if you are used to having caffeine every morning and you don't have any on race day or before your big weekend ride you are shooting yourself in the foot. The last thing you want to do is going through withdrawal when you need to be 100%.

I have gone back and forth about how to best use caffeine to enhance performance, and here is what I think:

1. Stop the addiction! You probably know already if you are addicted or not so I don't need to tell you (clue: if you have headaches when you don't drink your morning coffee, you are addicted). If this is the case, try to cut out all caffeine from your diet for one week, or at least restrict your consumption to under 100 mg per day. Though the withdrawal symptoms are severe, they will usually go away in 3 days or so. If coffee is part of your morning ritual, try replacing it with green tea (30 mg/8 oz.), white tea (15 mg/8 oz.), herbal tea (0 mg/ 8 oz.) or decaf coffee (5 mg/ 8 oz.). For reference, an 8 oz cup of black tea has about 50 mg and a Coke has about 35 mg.
2. Use caffeine effectively. Once you have broken the habit or at least minimized your consumption, you can use caffeine more effectively as a performance enhancer. For training, take 50-200 mg before your workout. If you aren’t much of a coffee drinker, you can try caffeine pills (usually 200 mg/pill). Caffeine pills have the added benefit that you can take them easily during an event. You may also find that you have an easier time staying hydrated this way because you aren't drinking a hot beverage.

Timing is critical. Depending on your metabolism, the effects of caffeine will be felt the most within 1-2 hours of consumption. Think about when you most need to be "on" and time your caffeine intake accordingly. I have seen a lot of athletes drink their morning coffee at 7 AM and then 3 hours later they are coming off their morning buzz right at the start line of the race. Not good planning! This is especially important to remember if you are racing in the afternoon or evening. My suggestion would be to have your caffeine 1 hour before your event if you need to be ready to go at the start. If you are doing a 4 hour road race that shouldn't get hard until the last 2 hours, you may be able to hold off until after the first hour and then supplement again after the second hour. Again, caffeine pills that can easily be carried in your jersey pocket are extremely useful here.

Pay attention to any side effects, which may include nausea, headache, or jitters. If you have little or no tolerance, you may be affected by even a small amount of caffeine so start on the conservative side. Like anything, experiment in training so that you know what to expect on race day. Since greater caffeine consumption will cause greater tolerance and addiction, try to only use it when you think it will help your performance. In other words, not for a recovery ride. Likewise, you may want to use a little more for races. Try to keep your intake under 250 mg/day average to avoid excessive consumption, potential long term health problems and addiction.
3. Detox. Every so often (1-3 months), cut caffeine out completely from your diet to limit addiction and reduce tolerance.

Thanks for reading!


  1. I have been racing and training for a few years, i have been taking fish oil, flax seed oil, and borage seed oil,
    along with a multivitamin, a good diet and lots of water !

  2. I feel that caffeine, in moderation, is a great supplement. It helps you push past your limits and improve overall focus and reps. But like many other supplements, people over do it and begin to hurt themselves. good article!