Does Caffeine Supplementation Work?
Some people love their coffee. What the mean to say is, I love my caffeine. You know the drill: you get to work and tell everyone that the day doesn’t start until you get your cup of coffee (and no one should dare talk to you until you get that warm, soothing cup). But that caffeine you love might be a great 1-2 punch for sports performance.
Performance enhancement has been around for a long time, and caffeine supplementation is no different. You’ll see here in a second that caffeine supplementation does work, but it isn’t as simple as just slamming a ton of coffee. You also can’t just run into a gas station and buy an endless supply of energy drinks.
What you also have to watch out for is the fact that caffeine is an ingredient in a lot of supplements. You know that caffeine can spike your heart rate and give you a little jolt; a lot of times that jolt makes you think that the supplement is working. Whether it be for a fat burner or a pre-workout drink, many supplement companies hope that you perceive this jump in heart rate as the magic pills actually working. Just be wary of buying supplements marketed as “fat torchers” or energy for your workout.
Here’s what we know about caffeine supplementation: it works. The higher heart rate you get from caffeine can help deliver more blood to working muscles; but it can also help speed up muscle contraction so your muscles are literally faster (this happens at the microscopic level….don’t expect to turn into the Flash after having your coffee). But caffeine works better in tablet form; research shows that just having a cup of coffee won’t lead to performance gains (1). We also know that there’s an ideal range for supplementation, which means you should shoot for 3-6 mg/kg/bw (1). So a 170 pound male would take in 232 mg on the low end and cap it off at 464 mg. Taking in any more than that doesn’t show any benefit.
Your sport of choice may help you decide if you should supplement with caffeine. High intensity exercise seems to benefit from caffeine: so sports that have bouts of high end activity (think soccer) that last 4-6 seconds will benefit, along with athletes who do work for 30-45 seconds non-stop (think ice hockey) (2).
However, if you’re an endurance athlete, research tells a different story. A meta-analysis of 33 studies on caffeine and its use in running, swimming, and cycling showed that only 15 studies had significant benefits (3). Those benefits showed a 2.3% average increase in performance when caffeine was ingested prior to exercise (3). 2.3% isn’t a massive increase, but at high levels of competition, it can be the difference between 1st and 5th place.
So here’s our take home points:
-Caffeine supplementation works, but you need to use it in tablet form
-Going beyond 6 mg/kg/bw doesn’t help
-Caffeine supplementation works best with sports that use short bursts of activity
-Endurance exercise may benefit from caffeine; studies show the best improvements when you consume caffeine before and during exercise.
1. Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Energy Drinks.” (2013) Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 10;1
2. Davis, J.K and Green, Matt J. “Caffeine and Anaerobic Performance.” (2009) Sports Medicine 39;10. 813-832
3. Ganio, M.S., Klau, J.F., et al. “Effect of Caffeine on Sport Specific Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review” (2009) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23;1. 315-324