Coffee has become the go-to ‘supplement’ of choice for cyclists but the benefits of caffeine aren’t restricted to those who ride – runners, climbers and endurance athletes at all levels can reap the rewards of the black stuff says Rob Kemp
Three out every four athletes will have consumed caffeine before taking part in a training session or competition event, according to a Spanish study carried out to determine the extent of caffeine usage among athletes after it was removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency list.
That’s not necessarily a humble cup of ‘Smoky Joe’ they’re using for a pre-performance pep-up either. Caffeine, in the form of bespoke sports supplements drinks and gels, is a multi-million pound business in its own right. So what makes caffeine – no matter what format it comes in – so integral to sport and exercise in general?
Boost energy levels
Caffeine has been shown to bind to fatigue receptors – effectively cutting off their communication – whilst also encouraging the release of the stress hormones (adrenalin and noradrenalin) that facilitate our fight or flight response.
‘You can focus a bit harder and go a bit longer using caffeine and everything seems slightly less hard in terms of rate of perceived exertion. You just have to offset the dehydrating effects of caffeine with adequate fluids and electrolyte intake,’ says nutritionist Matt Lovell.
Fight the pain factor
The benefits for endurance athletes may be apparent. The black stuff drowns out the screaming sinews and tired tendons whilst helping store glycogen for longer. It’s not so clear why more explosive types, like sprinters, might benefit from a pre-workout coffee. ‘Caffeine can help those doing circuits or short aerobic sessions because of the same principle as its endurance benefits.’ suggests Lovell, ‘Higher doses can help you recruit more muscle fibre to lift more weight in the gym.’
Improve mental focus
There’s the focus factor too. Athletes, being superstitious creatures of habit, have made coffee part of their training and competition routine. Some believe it’s as much for the mental boost as the physical one.
‘It’s entered our fitness psyche to associate the alertness coffee or caffeine provides with the start of exercise.’ suggests personal trainer Sarah Lindsay. ‘If you’re training in the morning, especially, and you can’t face breakfast then coffee can often be the one thing you can tolerate pre workout.’
It’s estimated that caffeine takes approximately 30-minutes to peak within the blood. ‘I use caffeine before training sessions, but guardedly, because the more you use it, the less of response you have to it.’
Rewire your mind
As well as providing a spike in alertness and giving a workout a decent boost, caffeine also rewires the mind to change our perception of how tough a workout really is. In Australia, where caffeine seems to be regularly put through its paces, a team of scientists in Queensland’s Griffith University found that taking it had a whole host of plus points for exercisers.
When compared to athletes taking a placebo, the caffeine consumers perceived a variety of workout sessions to be less difficult. They also used more energy, oxidised more fat and ate fewer calories after testing.
‘Coffee can act as an appetite suppressant as well,’ Sarah Lindsay suggests. But that’s not the only way a strong cup of black can help you manage your fat levels.
Use coffee in moderation
Applying such due diligence when using caffeine is something Lovell also suggests to his clients. ‘The key seems to be not using too much, as three cups per day detracts from the pre-exercise caffeine effect.’
Recent research from Dublin City University found that athletes who don’t drink caffeine-rich drinks on a daily basis gained a great performance benefit when they did reach for a Red Bull or hot coffee, than those who consume them all the time. ‘That makes sense really, as you get used to the lift – it’s not special to the body or the receptors anymore,’ says Lovell, ‘So decreasing caffeine use a couple of weeks before you want it to be super effective is a great idea.’