Several studies suggest that among the numerous benefits of moderate coffee consumption is an increase in athletic performance.
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Abstinence seems to be the key
There is a theory that the easiest and most effective way to increase performance in sports is to allow the body to return to its original caffeine state.
According to this theory, if you plan to run a marathon or complete a very demanding workout, it’s best to avoid coffee or other caffeinated beverages for 10 to 15 days.
This allows the brain to regain its natural sensitivity to caffeine, allowing the alkaloid’s invigorating effects on the body to be achieved even at low doses.
However, a study published in the University of São Paulo Journal of Applied Physiology in 2017 invalidated the withdrawal theory.
Development of the study
For this study, the scientists put 40 well-trained cyclists through a series of time trials.
In this way, the total number of participants was divided into 3 groups to then start the tests, each lasting 30 minutes.
- The first group consisted of cyclists who had only drunk water.
- The second group received a caffeine placebo.
- Finally, the third group received a real caffeine dose of 6 mg per kilogram of body weight 1 hour before the test.
In addition, members of the third group were asked not to drink coffee or other sources of caffeine 24 hours before the test.
Distribution of participants
At the beginning of the study, each of the cyclists was asked about their caffeine consumption habits.
The participants were then divided into 2 further groups based on their answers.
The first group consisted of cyclists who reported low caffeine consumption or daily caffeine consumption between 2 and 101 mg, ie ½ to 1 cup of coffee per day.
The second group consisted of participants who reported moderate or high caffeine consumption, ie between 190 and 583 mg per day, which corresponds to a consumption of 1 to 6 cups.
Results of the study
Originally, the researchers had expected that cyclists with low caffeine intake would show the greatest gains in performance.
At the same time, it was expected that cyclists who consumed the alkaloid would perform less, especially athletes who had fasted for 24 hours.
However, the opposite was true: cyclists who consumed caffeine actually performed better than those who did not consume caffeine.
The cyclists who received the caffeine dose showed an average increase in speed of 2.5% compared to the placebo group.
The increase over participants who only drank water was 3.3%.
However, it’s worth noting that the placebo group also showed a 1.2% increase in performance over the water-only group.
How does caffeine work?
A 2021 study showed that caffeine is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, with blood levels peaking after 30 to 120 minutes.
So, the caffeine level stays high for 3 to 4 hours and then starts to drop.
Caffeine is also known to occupy the adenosine receptors in the brain.
Adenosine is a substance responsible for initiating sleep, thus inducing a feeling of relaxation and calm.
When caffeine is ingested, it prevents adenosine from working and the brain thinks there is no adenosine, therefore increasing alertness and focus.
In addition, there is evidence that caffeine can affect cells throughout the body, including muscle, fat and central nervous system cells.
Effects of caffeine on the body
Several studies have shown that caffeine affects virtually the entire human body.
The effect of caffeine on the central nervous system
Caffeine has been shown to activate areas of the brain and nervous system responsible for improving focus and energy while reducing fatigue.
Effects of caffeine on the endocrine system (hormone system)
Caffeine increases levels of adrenaline, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that triggers the body’s sympathetic response.
This sympathetic response is known as the “fight-or-fly” response, which helps the body prepare for risky or dangerous situations that require heightened alertness and psychomotor response.
This at least partly explains why caffeine can improve focus.
Caffeine could support fat burning
Scientists suspect that caffeine may increase the body’s ability to burn fat through lipolysis, which is the breakdown of fat in fat cells.
Caffeine and endorphin production
Endorphins are substances produced by the brain that evoke the sense of well-being we experience when doing something we enjoy.
This study suggests that taking caffeine after an exercise session could increase endorphin levels, which would induce a sense of well-being while also speeding up the body’s recovery.
Caffeine and muscles
Caffeine can improve muscle performance by activating the central nervous system; however, the mechanisms have not yet been elucidated.
Caffeine stimulates the production of body heat
Another effect of caffeine on the body is to increase thermogenesis, or heat production, which raises body temperature and can help burn calories.
So, can caffeine help improve performance?
In general, yes, coffee can help you perform better during physical activity.
However, it should be noted that there are numerous results with different conclusions in different studies on this topic.
A meta-analysis of 56 studies found that the percentage difference in athletic performance was up to 15.9% for people with different levels of caffeine consumption.
A possible proportional relationship between the duration of caffeine effects and the intensity of exercise performed was also noted.
Caffeine is known to act directly on the brain’s fatigue and pain systems.
The longer an athlete trains, the greater the fatigue and pain, and the stronger the effects of caffeine.
Muscular endurance and caffeine
Although some studies have concluded that caffeine can increase muscular endurance by up to 7%, other research has shown no benefit.
However, this may be due to differences in research design methods.
There seems to be a slightly broader consensus about the role of caffeine in increasing muscle strength.
Three different meta-analyses report that caffeine can have up to 7% more ergogenic (energy-producing) effects on muscle fibers than no caffeine intake.
The effect of the alkaloid on the performance of strength athletes is being studied, as they are among those who consume the most coffee.
Caffeine and exercise
Although most sports could see a performance improvement with caffeine supplementation, longer duration aerobic sports are likely to benefit the most.
However, it is not surprising why high doses of caffeine are considered a banned substance in competitive sports.
It may in fact increase the body’s efficiency in performing certain tasks, which would be beneficial to those who take it and detrimental to those who don’t.
Before we conclude, as always, we would like to point out that these are informative data and in no way replace the opinion of a doctor.
Therefore, before increasing the dose of caffeine or any other substance, you should first consult your GP about the possible effects of a substance on your body.