Should athletes consume caffeine to improve athletic performance? Read along to learn the pros and cons of caffeine for athletes.
Caffeine has been well-researched and can benefit athletic performance and boost your mood, so should you be taking it?
Could a cup of coffee before your next race help optimize your performance? Learn how much caffeine to take, when to take caffeine, and signs that it may be helpful for your personalized sports nutrition plan.
We go over all the pros and cons of caffeine for athletes. Is consuming caffeine dehydrating? Will coffee cause an upset stomach? Is caffeinated pre-workout worth it? Keep reading to learn what the research says!
Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only for adults aged 18 and over. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend caffeine for children under the age of 12 and advises against energy drinks for all children and teens.
Table of Contents
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is a natural stimulant and well-researched performance enhancer!
Do you ever wonder how that morning cup of coffee helps you feel more awake? The reason is that caffeine binds to adenosine receptors. Adenosine helps you to feel sleepy and relaxed, drinking that morning cup of coffee suppresses the adenosine sleepy feeling.
Caffeine can also increase the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Do ever get a rush after a cup of coffee or tea? An uplift in your mood? More energy to take on the day?
That is the caffeine doing its thing!
Caffeine performance benefits
Caffeine, the go-to energy booster for many athletes, comes with many advantages backed by research. Let’s dive into the exciting potential performance-enhancing benefits.
Research reveals caffeine’s positive impact on both muscular and aerobic endurance.
It shines brightest in improving aerobic performance. Studies show that doses ranging from 2-6 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight can significantly enhance endurance across various sports like cycling, swimming, running, and cross-country skiing (1).
Power and strength
Caffeine isn’t just for endurance; it can also help you dominate the weight room. Research indicates that caffeine can help enhance upper-body muscle strength and power output (2).
More speed yes, please!
Athletes looking to go faster, listen up! Caffeine can give your performance an extra kick. A meta-analysis demonstrates that pre-training caffeine intake leads to notable improvements in speed (3)!
Sharper focus, brighter mood
Caffeine is also a cognitive champion (4)!
“Yes, I’ll take my Starbucks coffee with a side of improved agility, accuracy, and enhanced overall mental performance!” 😉
Lowered rate of perceived exertion (RPE):
Need that extra push during intense training sessions? Caffeine might be the secret ingredient you need.
Studies support that caffeine can lower the rate of perceived exertion, allowing athletes to push harder and train longer (5).
Should I start taking caffeine?
It depends on your genetics! Variants in a gene called CYP1A2 determine how fast your body breaks down caffeine (6).
What we can tell you is you should not take caffeine for the first time before a race.
Some individuals are more sensitive to caffeine and may experience negative effects forms caffeine such as increased heart rate, upset stomach, insomnia, and increased anxiety!
For female athletes, it’s important to note that birth control pills can make caffeine stay in the body longer. Producing stronger and lasting caffeine effects (7).
How much caffeine should I take?
We recommend practicing caffeine intake in practice before tying it in competition. If you have previously not tolerated caffeine this may not be the ergogenic aid (performance enhancer) for you!
For a 150lb athlete, this equates to 204- 408 mg one hour before a workout or competition. We recommend starting at the low end and trying which dose works best for you. If you are caffeine sensitive start at 1-3 mg/kg caffeine.
For NCAA athletes we recommend staying <300 mg of caffeine to avoid a failed urine test.
Caffeine is individualized, we recommend working with a sports dietitian if you need more support finding the caffeine performance-enhancing dose that works for you.
For habitual caffeine users, it is not necessary to skip coffee the week or two before your competition. Caffeine withdrawal is not fun and you are unlikely to gain performance-enhancing benefits from stopping and then reintroducing caffeine.
The caffeine content of foods and drinks
Beyond these foods, caffeine is found in chocolate, chewing gum, and other herbal supplements. Always check with your food labels to track how much caffeine you are consuming.
Is caffeine dehdyrating?
No, when taken in moderate amounts caffeine is not dehydrating. A research study done in 2014 gave participants used to drinking daily caffeine 4mg/kg body weight of caffeine (272 mg for a 150lb athlete) in 4 cups per day and found no dehydrating effect (9).
But caffeine makes me urinate isn’t that dehydrating? No, but, caffeine can stimulate the bladder to contract. So it may stimulate you to empty your bladder sooner but it does not directly cause fluid loss or dehydration.
Is pre-workout worth it?
Pre-workout powders may contain caffeine, nitrates, artificial sweeteners, flavors, sugar alcohols, BCAAs, excessive vitamin B12, and other compounds. These additional additives may lead to gastrointestinal upset for some.
For the purpose of consuming caffeine, we recommend sticking with a cup of coffee!
Keep in mind that pre-workout supplements are not regulated by the FDA and have varying levels of caffeine. If you are interested in taking a pre-workout we recommend choosing one that is third-party tested by NSF safe for sport.
Often, pre-workout powders are sold as a magic fix or quick performance enhancer. Pre-workout will not make up for a lack of training, a poor diet, or improper recovery.
Caffeine banned by the NCAA
In large amounts, caffeine is a banned substance by the NCAA.
The NCAA limits urine concentrations of caffeine to 15 ug/ml which equates to 500mg caffeine which is equivalent to 6-8 cups of coffee caffeine 2-3 hours before your sporting event.
Keep in mind that many energy drinks such as Celcius contain guarana which is a banned substance by the NCAA (10).
The positive effects of caffeine on athletic performance
Here are some of the pros of consuming caffeine.
- Potential performance enhancer for strength, sprint, and endurance athletes
- Caffeine can help athletes who are jetlagged train better
- May lower your rate of perceived exertion
- Can improve reaction time and concentration
- Supports improved cognitive function and positive mood
All that to say, while caffeine does have many benefits it will not make up for a diet lack in adequate amounts of energy and carbohydrates. Check out our blog post What to Eat Before Swim Practice (20 pre-swim snack ideas!) to learn more.
The negative effects of caffeine on sports performance
It is important to keep in mind that caffeine is both a supplement and a stimulant. We do not recommend caffeine for those who are sensitive to it and experience negative side effects from caffeine.
Here are some of the cons of caffeine.
- Can become physically dependent on caffeine
- Sleep disruptor, avoid taking 4-6 hours before you plan to sleep
- Can cause overstimulation and jitters
- May elevate the heart rate
- May cause increased heart rate, anxiety, and gastrointestinal upset for some
- Excessively high doses of caffeine can be lethal
Conclusion: pros and cons of caffeine
Caffeine has been shown to help athletes of all levels from the weekend warrior to the elite! If you do not experience negative side effects from caffeine it is never too late to try using caffeine to give you a boost in your workouts!
Remember, caffeine cannot make up for a lack of training or a well-rounded diet with enough carbohydrates, fat, protein, and overall energy. Caffeine is a supplement.
Use our caffeine calculator to calculate how much caffeine you should try before your workouts!
Weigh the pros and cons of caffeine to see if it is right for you to try at your next practice.
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Katie Schimmelpfenning RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, USA Swim Coach, and former Division 1 swimmer. She helps competitive swimmers fuel and train to optimize performance, recover faster, and prevent injury! She is passionate about spreading evidence-based nutrtion tips to help swimmers across the globe.