How Caffeine Benefits Endurance Athletes

Whether you want a quick boost, a warm, comforting drink or just an excuse to socialize with friends, coffee is the go-to beverage for many athletes.

An estimated 80 percent of people drink coffee daily. In fact, most individuals are more likely to drink coffee than they are to eat fruit. Thank goodness moderate coffee intake is typically not associated with serious health risks.

For athletes, caffeine is a proven performance enhancer. In their new book Caffeine for Sports Performance, sports dietitians Louise Burke and Ben Desbrow and exercise physiologist Lawrence Spriet address all-things-caffeine that an athlete may want to know.

Here are just a few tidbits that I gleaned from this comprehensive resource. Maybe this information can help you add a little zip to your workouts.

Note: No amount of caffeine will compensate for a lousy diet. If you choose to use caffeinated products to enhance your performance, make sure you're also fueling properly.

More: The Truth About Caffeine and Your Health

Benefits of Caffeine

Drinking a cup of coffee before exercise can help most athletes work harder—without realizing it. Caffeine has been shown to enhance performance by about 1 to 3 percent, particularly in endurance sports. For example, cyclists who consumed caffeine prior to a 24-mile (40-km) time trial, generated 3.5 percent more power than when they did the ride without caffeine.

An athlete's response to caffeine can vary. While caffeine may positively affect one individual, it can have negative effects for another.

Some of the negative side effects associated with too much caffeine include elevated heart rate, anxiety, "coffee stomach," irritability and insomnia.

Caffeine is only a weak diuretic and is no longer believed to cause dehydration. A novice coffee drinker can develop a tolerance to the diuretic effects in 4 to 5 days of regular consumption. Even high doses (3 mg/lb; 6 mg/kg) have no significant effect on urine production in coffee or tea drinkers. While it's important to assess your own tolerance, there appears to be no hydration-related reason for athletes to avoid caffeinated beverages.

More: Give Your Workout a Caffeine Kick

Caffeine Sources

Because the amount of caffeine in coffee and tea varies, some elite athletes use caffeine pills or commercial products to ensure desired intake. A comparison of the caffeine content in 16 ounces of coffee from 20 coffee vendors ranged from about 60 to 260 milligrams. Even when the researchers purchased the same brand of coffee, Starbucks Breakfast Blend, on six consecutive days, the caffeine content ranged from about 260 to 565 milligrams per 16 ounces.

Research suggests that the caffeine content of espresso also varies. A customer might get served 0.5 to 3 ounces of espresso, depending on the barista's generosity, with a caffeine range of 25 to 214 milligrams. In general, the larger vendors, such as Starbucks, offer a more consistent product. But this means you won't know exactly how much caffeine you'll consume if you purchase a pre-exercise espresso or coffee.

Energy drinks are another popular source of caffeine. A study of 500 college students in North Carolina reports 51 percent drank at least one energy drink in an average month during the semester. Sixty-seven percent used the energy drink to stay awake, 65 percent, to increase energy and 54 percent to drink with alcohol while partying. Of the party-drinkers, 49 percent consumed three or more energy drinks.

Caffeinated gum is frequently used by sleep-deprived soldiers, and can effectively boost physical and mental performance and help maintain reaction time, vigilance and ability to think clearly. The caffeine in chewing gum gets delivered quicker than from a pill—achieving significant levels in the blood in five minutes versus 30 minutes for a pill—because it gets absorbed through the cheeks, not the stomach.

Soft drinks offer caffeine and a hefty dose of sugar. Colas, taken later in an event, can provide a much-needed source of fuel, so the combination of caffeine plus sugar can provide a nice boost. Some athletes choose defizzed Coca-Cola as their preferred sports drink, despite having only 35 milligrams of caffeine per 12-ounce can.

For a 150-pound (68 kg) athlete, the recommended dose of caffeine is about 200 mg one hour before exercise. That's the amount in a large mug (16 oz) of coffee. No problem for most coffee-drinkers.

More: Caffeine the Ergogenic Aid

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