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How caffeine impacts sports performance

People are now more likely to consume caffeine on a daily basis than fruit, and it has been suggested that four out of every five people in western cultures consume caffeine every day. In the United States alone, more than 100 million people drink coffee on a daily basis, while an additional 30 million consume specialty beverages like lattes and cappuccinos. Popular sports dietician Louise Burke, co-author of Caffeine for Sports Performance (Human Kinetics, August 2013), says that while caffeine is consumed daily by the overwhelming majority of the adult population to enhance their well-being and daily activities, athletes are left wondering exactly how it affects their sports performance.


According to Burke, caffeine is typically used among athletes to reduce the fatigue or performance decline that would otherwise occur during an event. “An important interpretation of these high rates of consumption is that not all athletes who have caffeine in their system while they train or compete had the intention of gaining a performance advantage,” Burke says. “Indeed some athletes may compete without even realizing they have consumed caffeinated products!”


As a result of the high level of background caffeine intake in athletes, caffeine was subject to threshold limits which tried to distinguish between habitual caffeine use and deliberate use for sports performance. Thus, in 2004 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed caffeine from their list of prohibited substances and it is still legal today. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), caffeine is also considered a regulated but not banned substance.


After WADA removed caffeine from their list of prohibited substances, Burke provided a pre-race caffeine-related questionnaire to 140 triathletes from 15 countries, including elite and age group participants from the 2005 Ironman Triathlon who were competing in a major international event. The questionnaire investigated caffeine-related knowledge, sources of caffeine information, their experiences using caffeine and their plans for caffeine use throughout the upcoming race. “A large proportion (73%) of these athletes believed caffeine was ergogenic to their endurance performance and 84% believe it improved their concentration during an event,” Burke says. “The most commonly reported positive caffeine experiences related to within competition use of Cola drinks (65%) and caffeinated gels (24%).”


Burke notes that the most popular sources of caffeine information were self-experimentation (16%), fellow athletes (15%), magazines (13%), and journal articles (12%). Results also indicated that 124 athletes (89%) planned on using a caffeinated substance throughout the event. One quarter of these athletes, however, remained either confused or uninformed about caffeine's “legality” in sport.


“The athlete's awareness of caffeine's position in anti-doping rules was associated with their actual caffeine intake,” Burke explains. “Specifically, the dose of caffeine was higher if an athlete was aware of caffeine's position as an unrestricted substance - ~ 222 mg in those unaware of the 2004 decision versus ~ 415 mg in those who were aware of the change in caffeine's status on the WADA anti-doping List.”


“In theory, athletes should be able to manage a safe and socially acceptable intake of caffeine intake to prioritize its effect on sports performance within the ethics and rules of their sport,” Burke says. “In practice, however, caffeine use in sport continues to be problematic.”


Caffeine for Sports Performance offers a commonsense discussion on the benefits and risks of caffeine use for a wide range of sports. The book enables athletes to decide whether to safely use caffeine, including their habitual daily caffeine intake, to get the most out of their sports while also delving into the health implications of caffeine use. Read more about Caffeine for Sports Performance