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Can Avoiding Caffeine Boost Your Athletic Performance?

The ergogenic effects (or performance boosts) of caffeine on muscle endurance, muscle strength, anaerobic power and aerobic endurance are significant but do you have to forego your morning cup of joe for a while to really feel those effects?

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #458
Photo of a man working out with a coffee

A few years ago I was preparing to race an Ironman 70.3 in Syracuse, New York. My training was going really well, and my confidence was high. So high that I got it into my head that I may be able to qualify for the world championships.

For someone like me, qualifying meant I would have to go the extra mile—the metaphorical mile, that is. So I started looking into some of the more fringe and less significant advantages I could incorporate. Things like drinking beet juice, taking ice baths, and for the two weeks before the race, abstaining from my most beloved of beverage based drugs—caffeine!

I know, right?

The point of this coffee abstinence was to allow my body to regain its sensitivity to caffeine. Then, in theory, when I had that big cup of glorious coffee on race morning, I would feel it.

In the end, I am not sure I felt much more of a caffeine rush than I usually do. But what I did feel was the lack of caffeine in my system for those two weeks leading up to the event. Let's just say I was not my usual chipper and positive self. 

Why caffeine?

Caffeine is well known to enhance and prolong exercise performance. Most specifically, doses of 3 to 13 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg) have been shown to improve exercise performance. 

Doses of 3 to 13 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg) have been shown to improve exercise performance.

How does it do that? Well, caffeine's stimulating effect on the central nervous system has been shown to reduce feelings of fatigue, lower perceived exertion, and even lower levels of perceived pain. Caffeine also improves mental acuity and sharpness, it helps maintain laser-like focus, and it even improves some technical skills both during and after strenuous activity. And, if that isn't enough, it's also believed to enhance the body's ability to use its own fat as fuel, which can effectively increase the time to exhaustion in endurance events. 

To get a little nerdy and "sciencey" for a second, the theory is that caffeine blocks something called adenosine receptors in the brain. That leads to higher levels of dopamine and noradrenaline, which both can lead to all the aforementioned magical performance-boosting benefits. 

Abstaining from caffeine

It's believed that the easiest and most effective way to get a performance boost is by first allowing your body to regain its natural state of sensitivity to caffeine. (That was the theory back in my racing days, and it holds true in most circles today.) That means going cold-turkey for ten days to two weeks.

But in 2017, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology from the University of São Paulo, tested that assumption. Researchers put 40 well-trained cyclists through a series of time trial events. Each event lasted 30 minutes and was performed by cyclists who were either having nothing but water, taking a caffeine placebo, or taking an actual 6 mg/kg dose of caffeine one hour before the trial. And these lucky folks only had to abstain from caffeine for 24 hours before each event!

At the beginning of the study, each of the cyclists was asked about their caffeine-drinking habits. Then, based on their answers, they were divided into one of three caffeinated groups: low (two to 101 mg/day), moderate (104 to 183 mg/day), and high (190 to 583 mg/day). The initial assumption for the study was that the lesser-caffeinated cyclists would experience the biggest boost in performance. And the higher-caffeinated group would see the lowest boost—especially since the abstinence period was so short (24 hours.) Contrast that with the two weeks of caffeine deprivation I inflicted upon myself!

Not surprisingly, the caffeine did boost everyone's performance and speed by 2.5% on average compared to the placebo group. It also boosted everyone's performance 3.3% more than the plain water group. That's interesting in and of itself—there was a 1.2% placebo advantage! But placebo effects aren't what we are talking about today. For that you can check out my article called Can the Placebo Effect Enhance Athletic Performance?

The highly caffeinated fiends got the same amount of boost as the cyclists who barely drank any at all.

The study results showed that there was only a minuscule difference between the three caffeinated groups. The highly caffeinated fiends got the same amount of boost as the cyclists who barely drank any. That's good news if you're as dependent on caffeine as I am but still want to use it on race day or before a big workout. 

Getting habituated

More recently, in a study called Time course of tolerance to the performance benefits of caffeine, researchers put a group of 11 lightly caffeinated volunteers through two 20-day regimens, conducted one week apart. During the first 20-day regimen, they were given 3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight in pill form. Like I said earlier, that's a pretty standard athletic dose. Then, for the other 20-day regimen, the participants got a placebo. 

Now here's the killer part—before, after, and three times per week during the study, the participants were put through a VO2max test plus a 15-second all-out bicycle sprint. The point of all this torturous testing and retesting was so the researchers could track exactly how the participant's performance changed and adjusted to this new regular intake of caffeine. The same process was applied during the placebo week.

The study data showed that immediately, on day one, the caffeinated participants received a 5 percent boost in peak power compared to when they were given a placebo. As the study went on, this boost stayed mainly intact for a few days. Then, on day 11, the researchers switched things up and did what they called a manipulation check. Instead of taking a pill before the tests, the participants were given their caffeine after the tests. This is important for two reasons: the participants continued their caffeine habituation, but the researchers got to observe that the caffeine and placebo effect were the same. Even after 11 days of habitual caffeine intake. 

In the paper, the researchers wrote: "We hypothesized that caffeine ergogenicity would be progressively reduced when this substance is consumed day-to-day in a moderate dose (3 mg/kg/day) for 20 consecutive days but that it would still be ergogenic after a short habituation protocol."

The participants got the biggest boost from the caffeine in the first few days. Then, it gradually tapered off.

And that is exactly what they saw. In plain English, the participants got the biggest boost from the caffeine in the first few days. Then, it gradually tapered off. But—and this is an important but—it didn't drop to nothing. Even on day 20, the participants were getting a boost similar to the one they got on day six.

So yes, habitual caffeine usage does lower its overall ergogenic (that means "performance enhancing") effect, but not all that significantly. Sure, if you're attempting to win a race by seconds (or tenths of a second), a detox period might be handy.

But in my experience, the sorrow of going without my beverage of choice for two painful weeks during a time when I was also training, recovering, worrying, planning, traveling, and doing all the other stuff an athlete does before a big race, was much more detrimental to my overall happiness and performance than a small drop in ergogenic benefit. 

In the end, I did not qualify for the championships, and I can't even blame it on caffeine. But that's a story for another day. 

How should you use caffeine?

To take full advantage of the ergogenic effects of caffeine, it is best to have that big cuppa joe about 60 minutes before the race, workout, or event. But make sure that you try this out on a low-pressure, non-critical day, especially if you're not used to taking caffeine. You may want to take it earlier if you get too jittery or later if you have a quick-release bladder. 

As I said, you should choose your dose based on your body weight. Until you establish your own tolerance level, start low, and work up to a higher dose. The dosage ranges are generally 1.4 to 2.7 mg per lb of body weight (or 3 to 6 mg per kg). In practical terms, this comes out to about 200-400 mg for most people, although some studies suggest that you can use up to 600–900 mg. You can check out this article by Nutrition Diva, Monica Reinagel, for more information about the health benefits of caffeine. 

Again, keep in mind that caffeine can have some interesting effects on the body. It's best to avoid being surprised by them on race morning. Especially when all you have to rely on are public porta-potties, if you know what I mean. And I know you do. 

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About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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