Using Caffeine to Support Athlete Performance

Posted 18th July 2016 by Paul Mullan, British Sailing Team's Head of Sport Science and Sport Medicine

Caffeine use is widespread in our general population. It is reported that 4 out of 5 people in the western world consume caffeine on a daily basis, which is greater than those choosing to consume fruit. In fact many people don’t realise they are consuming the drug as it’s not only the obvious sources such as tea and coffee that it’s present in. Soft drinks such as Cola, many cold remedies and even chocolate contain varying levels of caffeine. So it’s unsurprising that the background levels of caffeine in the body can be quite high and this prevalence from habitual use is what resulted in its removal from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substance list for athletes. Caffeine does have some potential performance enhancing effects which is why the drug has remained on the WADA ‘Watch List’ since 1st Jan 2004.

Performance Benefits

Since its removal from the banned list, caffeine has been the focus of much research to better understand the potential of this drug on sporting performance. Caffeine is believed to work by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain and other organs. This reduces the ability of adenosine to bind to the receptors, which would normally slow down cellular activity. The stimulated nerve cells release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline), which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles. It is by no coincidence therefore that caffeine can be used as an ergogenic (performance enhancing) aid for endurance performance (Higgins et al. 2015; Lane et al. 2013; Desbrow et al. 2012). Results can be significant, for example Lane et al. (2013) attributed a 3-4% performance gain in cycling TT performance to caffeine ingestion of 3mg/kg. Other research has focussed on the enhancement properties for muscular performance and power production with equally interesting results that make the supplement potentially impactful for non-endurance athletes (Diaz-Lara et al. 2016; Beaven et al. 2013).

Chewing Gum For Fast Absorption

The performance window has been shown to last between 40-60mins with the peak effect being dependent on the format of ingestion. In chewing gum format 85% of the dose is absorbed in the first 5min of chewing Kamimori et al. (2002). As a result it is advisable to use caffeine gum immediately before intended use, which is different to other ingestion methods such as capsules or drinks. Gum format is the preferred ingestion method of the British Sailing Team as it allows us to have the greatest control over when it gets implemented. It is common for races to get postponed in sailing and the last thing you want is for a sailor to have supplemented with caffeine 30 minutes before a race only to find that it is postponed. We have to apply strategies in a way that they are not detrimental to performance, so having utmost control is essential. It is worth bearing in mind that caffeine has a half-life of about 6hrs, so consuming it earlier in the day is preferential so as not to affect sleep routines of our athletes.

Reduce Perceived Exertion

Findings on the effect of caffeine on perceptual responses such as perceived exertion, exercise induced pain and state of arousal are a bit equivocal but for a decision making sport like Sailing, this is probably the most interesting area. For example, Ali et al. 2016 found positive effects on perceived exertion and feelings of fatigue, whereas Astokorki & Mauger 2016 no effect of caffeine on perceived exertion. These are only two examples out of thousands of research studies into the perceptual effects of caffeine.

The take home from an applied point of view is that the effects are highly individual – every athlete is different and people respond to caffeine in totally different ways. We trial all of our strategies on an individual basis and form tailored routines that suit the individual and never implement anything in competition unless we, and our athletes are confident that we have the right routines in place in training first. Having batch tested caffeine in gum format through Healthspan Elite is a fantastic addition to the range. When applied on top of an optimal dietary intake of balanced nutrients, Kick-Start Gum has several interesting performance impacting applications.

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