When it comes to ergogenic aids for exercise performance, caffeine is one of the most common and most effective supplements on the market. Used for years by runners, cyclists and powerlifters for its beneficial stimulant properties, and as one of the supplements on the ISSN list of recommended ergogenic aids, there’s little doubt about its effectiveness.
But should you take it, and if so, how much?
First of all, let’s just define what exactly we mean by an ‘ergogenic aid’. This is how the ISSN describe it:
"An ergogenic aid is any training technique, mechanical device, nutritional practice, pharmacological method, or psychological technique that can improve exercise performance capacity and/or enhance training adaptations".
Caffeine is categorised as a ‘thermogenic’ because it’s one of a group of supplements which increase metabolic rate. Caffeine is often used in so-called fat burners for this reason. However, many of these contain very high levels of caffeine which may cause unpleasant side-effects, such as heart palpitations, and this does not come with a trade-off of meaningful amounts of weight loss over time. So using caffeine for this reason isn’t really something we’d recommend.
There is, however, considerable literature to support the use of caffeine to improve exercise performance right down to dosage specific advice for each discipline, so let’s look at that.
Can Caffeine Give You a Boost?
If you are an endurance athlete, the use of caffeine will likely help you perform for longer. In fact, caffeine has even been shown to improve power output during a hypo-glycolytic state (a state in which you don’t have sufficient carbs for fuel) in cyclists.
Importantly, in a study analysing the power outputs of 2 groups of athletes in hypo-glycolytic states, those that took caffeine did have a greater power output than those that did not. However, power output was still better when tested on athletes who were not in hypo-glycolytic states and had adequate glycogen levels.
So, taking on caffeine may help you when you’re flagging but not necessarily more effectively than if you were just drip feeding your carbs to avoid glycogen depletion. So the answer in our opinion should always be to ensure you are well fuelled and take caffeine supplements if you want to give your performance a boost!
It has been observed that well-fuelled cyclists significantly raised their time to exhaustion by consuming 330mg of caffeine in coffee prior to riding. Other benefits have been shown with smaller doses too. Trials on runners have been a bit more mixed, however.
As a general rule taking a minimum dose of 200mg of caffeine 1-hour before endurance type exercise may produce some improvements in endurance performance. Even small doses show improvements in cognitive function, which could be just as beneficial to performance over long distances as any improvement in power output. So, if you like an Americano before you ride then go for it.
However, it also appears that relatively untrained individuals don’t experience an ergogenic effect from caffeine. This is interesting and could mean that most recreational athletes up to intermediate level probably just need to train more. That’s not a bad thing and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. If you want to get fitter, improve your fitness. If you are fit and want to improve your performance taking some caffeine may make you train harder and perform longer.
The ISSN recommend 3-9mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight 30-90 minutes prior to exercise to improve endurance exercise capacity. Work out the level that works best for you and consider starting at the low end when working that out (Anecdotally this tends to fall in the 3-6mg/kg range).
Can Caffeine Improve Performance In Strength And Power Sports?
So, it appears that caffeine does indeed have some pretty good benefits for endurance athletes, with the main caffeine induced benefit appearing to be improved power output and delayed onset of fatigue. But does this transfer over to the gym floor?
When talking about improvements in strength you must understand that the kind of tests used include a rep max bench press and the wingate test, which assesses peak anaerobic output, usually on a cycle ergometer. So, we’re not talking maximal single rep strength here but muscular endurance and power output.
Caffeine certainly seems to exert benefits for team sports like rugby or field hockey and any form of exercise with anaerobic elements to it. So, although it’s not entirely clear whether taking caffeine will make you lift more weight in a single pull it will almost certainly help you to maybe squeeze out an extra rep or two which is great for increasing volume when training for hypertrophy. It’s also highly likely that caffeine will be great for helping you to smash out a few strongman style circuits at the end of your session.
There’s also the psychological side of caffeine consumption, and its effects on tiredness. Those who train very early in the morning, or who enjoy the ritual of consuming caffeine before going to the gym as a part of their ‘getting ready’ process will benefit in no small way to the morale-boost caused. If you feel good when you train, you’ll train better and for longer. Even if this was the only benefit of caffeine (which it isn’t), in our eyes it’s a good one.
Naturally, because it has a high glycolytic load and heavy anaerobic impact, caffeine and high intensity, functional training seem like a match made in heaven.
Most of the literature seems to indicate that around 5mg per kg of bodyweight 60 to 30 minutes prior to exercise works best.
When Should You Take Caffeine?
Obviously, most people consume caffeine in the form of coffee, tea or soft drinks like colas and energy drinks. Although coffee has been used in some of the research it does appear that anhydrous caffeine is preferred. Anhydrous caffeine is in non-liquid form, usually either powders or tablets,.
Caffeine still delivers performance benefits when consumed in coffee, but the dosage is more easily controlled in tablet form or when you have a standardised drink like an energy drink. If you are aiming for, say, 400mg of caffeine before an event you can easily measure out the dosage using caffeine tablets, but coffee is more difficult to quantify and may even contribute to gastrointestinal discomfort in some.
Many commercial pre-workout supplements, like the dreaded ‘pink drink’ contain very high levels of caffeine. I’m sure we’ve all seen that bro at the gym downing one of those on his way in from the carpark and then chugging down Relentless between sets. This is poor caffeine timing – generally meaning that it ‘kicks in’ during his third or fourth exercise when the heavy work is already done - and could be the reason said bro often seems on the verge of throwing the squat rack across the studio in a caffeine fuelled rage (at least we hope it’s caffeine rage). Take your caffeine and give it a good 45 minutes to ‘kick in’. You may subjectively feel the effects after a much shorter period, but these things take time to peak.
On the topic of timing, we do need to be aware of caffeine’s half-life. The half-life of a substance is the time it takes for ½ of it to be metabolised and so removed from your system. For caffeine this can be up to 6 hours. Meaning that after up to 6 hours 200mg becomes 100mg, then after another 6 it’s 50, then 25, and so on.
We say up to because this is affected by:
- Smoking status, with smokers metabolising caffeine at twice the rate.
- Diet, for example grapefruit can increase clearance by almost a third, and brassicas like broccoli having a smaller but still relevant effect.
- Pregnancy, with pregnant people metabolising caffeine far slower.
- Oral contraceptives also double the half-life.
- There are numerous genetic factors, too.
This has really important implications for sleep, so we strongly recommend those who train later in the day take this into account. Do you feel like your sleep is disturbed, or you find it hard to go to sleep within 8 hours of needing to wake? If so, your caffeine may be a problem and it could be a good idea to cut back. The improvements in performance are rarely worth significant detrimental effects to the duration and quality of your sleep, and consequently your recovery too.
Interestingly, it has always been considered useful to limit habitual caffeine intake if you are looking for ergogenic performance benefits from caffeine supplements. But more recent research has shown that this may not be the case, or at least not as significantly as previously thought. Habitual caffeine consumers seem to still get the same benefits as caffeine naïve users. This means that if you like your coffee it does appear that you can drink 2-3 cups per day and still strategically use an anhydrous caffeine supplement to experience the ergogenic effects.
Of course, some people are genetic non-responders and may not feel much benefit at all, or simply be able to tolerate more caffeine than the next athlete, meaning that they may not benefit much from caffeine a sports supplement. Conversely, some people have a slow caffeine metabolism and may feel jittery and wired after only one cup of coffee, so it’s important to understand how your body responds to caffeine and act accordingly. If you’re sensitive to its effects, then it would be best to save your caffeine usage for around training and avoid it the rest of the time. Trust me, your friends and colleagues (and that squat rack) will thank you for it.
How to Take Caffeine
Yes, caffeine is safe for use, is effective for use and makes a significant difference to sporting performance. Endurance sports seem to benefit the most from caffeine ingestion, especially cycle time trials. Exponents of strength and power sports like rugby, high intensity and functional training, and bodybuilding may experience some benefits, but the results are a bit more mixed and require further research.
However, the improvements in power output and muscular endurance seen in time trial performance could well carry over to the athletes training, especially when utilising anaerobic intervals. It’s also the case that the focus you feel with an ideal caffeine dose, as well as the lack of tiredness when training early in the day is likely to be beneficial even if only to adherence. So, although caffeine may not make you lift more weight, it could well make you train harder and squeeze out more volume.
- For endurance sports 3-9mg per kg of bodyweight 30-90 minutes prior to exercises is recommended.
- For strength and power sports 3-6mg per kg around 30 minutes prior should do it.
Listen to your own body, although the above amounts are clearly stated in the literature, the lower-middle end of the range tends to be most peoples’ sweet spot in our experience, and we do not recommend going any higher than the top end.
If you’d like to benefit from a standardised, personalisable caffeine dose, Awesome Caffeine tabs which also contain theanine, a nootropic able to stabilise the stimulant effects of caffeine so you avoid jitters and experience a clean focus effect are the perfect answer! Grab yours HERE!
- Goldstein et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition20107:5 DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-7-5
- Stephen Layne et al. Caffeine Ingestion and Cycling Power Output in a Low or Normal Muscle Glycogen State. Medicine and science in sports and exercise · February 2013. DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31828af183
- Spriet LL. Exercise and Sport Performance with Low Doses of Caffeine. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2014;44(Suppl 2):175-184. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0257-8.
- Clark et al. Coffee and Caffeine Ingestion Have Little Effect on Repeated Sprint Cycling in Relatively Untrained Males. Sports 2016, 4, 45; doi:10.3390/sports4030045
- Lívia de Souza Gonçalves et al. Dispelling the myth that habitual caffeine consumption influences the performance response to acute caffeine supplementation. J Appl Physiol (May 11, 2017). doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00260.2017