In today’s health-trend enthused society, we get a lot of conflicted messages about the effects of what we’re putting into our bodies and caffeine is no exception. Depending on whom you ask, caffeine is either a panacea of energy or an addictive villain, so what should you believe?
Surprisingly, research has affirmed that caffeine can be beneficial for endurance athletes. Studies have shown that caffeine decreases the mental and physical onset of fatigue, especially in sports like soccer, running and cycling that require sustained stamina. This occurs because instead of burning up glycogen stores to fuel muscles, caffeine causes them to burn fat, especially in the first 15 minutes of exercise. The result is delayed depletion of glycogen stores which allows you to go longer before you hit the wall.
Once caffeine enters the bloodstream, it causes increased transfer of electrolytes like calcium, sodium and potassium, into your cells which increases membrane potential. The result is more powerful muscle contractions which are going to help you train or race harder for longer. Caffeine also increases reaction speed by sharpening focus, an effect which lasts about 1-3 hours.
In addition to performance enhancement, caffeine can also boost recovery time after workouts. Researchers have shown that a recovery drink including caffeine can increase glycogen store replacement by 66%. Caffeine also acts as a mild pain killer and can enhance the effects of pain relievers. Sources of caffeine like tea, coffee, kola and cocoa are also good sources of antioxidants which will amplify the recovery boost seen with caffeine.
So how do you achieve these benefits and what precautions should you take? Ideally, caffeine should be taken 2-3 hours before competition because it takes several hours for the fat burning effect to kick in. You should also refrain from using caffeine 3-4 days before competition in order to sensitive your body to its effects. However, typical caffeine use should be taken into consideration because withdrawal can result in headache, fatigue, depressed mood, and difficulty concentrating.
Also, you should have a good idea of how caffeine affects you before you toe the line hyped up on three cups of coffee. Caffeine can have side effects including nausea, cramping, anxiety, fatigue, headache, GI distress and dehydration which can be crippling to performance. Typically, you can have up to 550mg of caffeine before dehydration sets in.
Although caffeine can be addicting, it is processed fairly quickly by your liver, with 75% being entirely eliminated from your system within 8-10 hours. Some researchers have voiced concern for bone density losses but urinary excretion of calcium and magnesium, two minerals essential for bone health, does not increase unless you are consuming more than 744mg/day. That being said, you don’t need to feel guilty about reaching for the coffee maker in the morning: A cup of joe only packs about 150mg of caffeine. Overall, when used responsibly, caffeine can help you maximize your training and give you an edge in competition.