Caffeine & Athletic Performance

By Laura Smith

Whether it's consumed to enhance performance or as part of the daily diet, caffeine can be a negative for today's competitive athlete. In November, we looked at how caffeine affects a high school athlete from physiological and chemical standpoint.  In this issue, we look at the impact of caffeine in terms of athletic performance.

High School Athletes need to be aware of the realities of competing under its influence

Beyond consuming coffee as part of their daily routines, many college or adult athletes are turning to caffeine as an ergogenic aid. "The prevalence of caffeine as a performance aid is something I'm seeing more and more," says Josh Hingst, MS, RD, CSCS, USAW, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach and Sports Nutritionist at Florida State University.

"I don't see student-athletes taking caffeine pills, but I do see them drinking more caffeinated beverages, especially the so-called energy drinks, before games or meets," agrees Leah Moore Thomas, MS, RD, LD, Sports Nutritionist at Georgia Tech. "And I've had more athletes ask, 'If I drink coffee before my swim meet or my race, is it going to help me?'"

The answer, according to a solid body of literature, is probably yes—but with some big caveats. Caffeine may boost performance for a college or adult athlete, depending on the student-athlete's sport and his or her individual response to the substance. Particularly with endurance exercise, multiple studies have shown that athletes given caffeine prior to workouts in the laboratory outperform those given a placebo.

"There is a wealth of information to suggest that caffeine allows people to exercise harder and longer in aerobic events lasting 20 minutes or more," says Lawrence Spriet, PhD, an exercise physiologist, caffeine researcher, and Professor at Canada's University of Guelph. "Caffeine holds up as a solid performance enhancer in endurance events."

Until recently, physiologists believed that caffeine aided performance by allowing the body to tap into fatty acid stores more quickly, thus sparing muscle glycogen to be used later in the event as the body fatigues. However, that theory has not held up in newer research. Researchers now believe the majority of caffeine's performance effect results from simple central nervous system stimulation.

However, the real question mark comes when one attempts to translate laboratory findings to real life competition. Research studies typically put athletes through very specific physical challenges with few variables, like treadmill running or stationary cycling. "Clearly the translation from that to running a 1500-meter race is quite easy," Spriet says. "But with sports like soccer, ice hockey, and basketball, the translation is very complicated. When you introduce all the variables that are involved with team sports, it becomes much harder to measure whether caffeine has improved an individual athlete's performance."

High School Athletes: Minimize Caffeine Intake

If caffeine can possibly boost performance, should athletic trainers advocate student-athletes using it? When it comes to high school student-athletes, Spriet has an unequivocal answer: absolutely not.

"I do not recommend caffeine use with developing individuals," he says. "In fact, if it was up to me, it would be banned for athletes under 18."

Juliano agrees. "For one thing, from a chemical standpoint, we don't know whether caffeine affects a developing central nervous system differently from an adult central nervous system, because that research cannot be done for ethical reasons," she says. "We know that the brain is still developing, and that caffeine affects brain neurotransmitters, but beyond that, we just don't know."

In addition, advocating that high school athletes use caffeine to perform better may put them at increased risk for trying other, and more dangerous, ergogenic aids. "Telling a 14- or 15-year-old athlete that caffeine supplementation is an okay idea sends a dangerous message," says Lewin. "It opens them up to the idea of a quick fix, of taking a pill to become a better athlete. Can it lead to abuse of other performance enhancers? We don't know for sure, but it's certainly an issue to be aware of."

The fact is, however, high school student-athletes are getting the message that caffeine will help them play better from other sources, so it falls to athletic trainers to offset that message with education. "We know that children and adolescents are using more caffeine than ever before," Juliano says. "They are a huge share of the market for soda and energy drinks. For athletic trainers working with adolescents, it's critical to educate them that caffeine is a drug, that it causes physical dependence, and that there are much better ways to achieve more on the court or field."

It's also important to be aware of the messages high school athletes are getting from their coaches regarding caffeine. "Ask the coaches you work with how they feel about caffeine use," Juliano says. "Are they neutral, or are they encouraging or discouraging its use? And take that opportunity to educate coaches about the issue, because they are the ones most likely to notice if athletes are using caffeine to enhance performance, and their messages go a long way."