The Science of Caffeine for Endurance Sports

Caffeine is the most commonly used ergogenic aid in the world. The majority of evidence indicates caffeine ingestion increases performance in both endurance (4, 18, 19), sustained high intensity (6, 32), and stop and go team based sports (23, 26).

It has long been thought that caffeine increases performance by promoting fat mobilization from adipose tissue. Although this does happen, enhanced free fatty acid availability does not substantially change fat or carbohydrate oxidation (usage as fuel) in working muscle (32). As a result, the ergogenic effect of caffeine is not thought to be due to alterations in substrate selection.

Most data suggest caffeine improves exercise performance by stimulating the central nervous system, and can decrease perception of pain or effort during exercise (7). Additionally, caffeine can decrease fatigue during very intense “anaerobic” exercise bouts (5). The combination of improved performance, decreased pain perception, and decreased fatigue make caffeine consumption an effective way to improve performance during sport.

Many historical studies found that caffeine dosing at 3-6 mg/kg body mass enhanced performance (10, 11), however, more recent studies showed performance benefit from more modest doses of 1-3 mg/kg body weight (13). Further, several studies have reported no dose response effect with caffeine, or if there is a dose response, there is a plateau at 3 mg/kg (3, 13, 19). Therefore, modest amounts of caffeine can result in improved performance; its incorporation into one’s nutrition regime should not follow a “more is better” philosophy. Somewhat surprisingly, the exact time an athlete consumes caffeine is not critical for improved performance. Studies have shown caffeine is ergogenic when consumed before exercise, during exercise, or after the onset of fatigue (3, 19). Therefore, athletes have a wide range of caffeine doses and ingestion times that are equally effective at improving performance. 


References (Adapted from upcoming article “Caffeine and Taurine: The Perfect Marriage” -numbers not sequential).

3. Cox GR, Desbrow B, Montgomery PG, Anderson ME, Bruce CR, Macrides TA, Martin DT, Moquin A, Roberts A, Hawley JA, and Burke LM. Effect of different protocols of caffeine intake on metabolism and endurance performance. Journal of applied physiology 93: 990-999, 2002.

4. Cureton KJ, Warren GL, Millard-Stafford ML, Wingo JE, Trilk J, and Buyckx M. Caffeinated sports drink: ergogenic effects and possible mechanisms. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 17: 35-55, 2007

5. Davis JK, and Green JM. Caffeine and anaerobic performance: ergogenic value and mechanisms of action. Sports Med 39: 813-832, 2009.

6. Doherty M. The effects of caffeine on the maximal accumulated oxygen deficit and short-term running performance. Int J Sport Nutr 8: 95-104, 1998.

7. Doherty M, and Smith PM. Effects of caffeine ingestion on rating of perceived exertion during and after exercise: a meta-analysis. Scand J Med Sci Sports 15: 69-78, 2005

10. Graham TE. Caffeine and exercise: metabolism, endurance and performance. Sports Med 31: 785-807, 2001.

11. Graham TE. Caffeine, coffee and ephedrine: impact on exercise performance and metabolism. Can J Appl Physiol 26 Suppl: S103-119, 2001.

13. Graham TE, and Spriet LL. Metabolic, catecholamine, and exercise performance responses to various doses of caffeine. Journal of applied physiology 78: 867-874, 1995.

18. Jenkins NT, Trilk JL, Singhal A, O’Connor PJ, and Cureton KJ. Ergogenic effects of low doses of caffeine on cycling performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 18: 328-342, 2008.

19. Kovacs EM, Stegen J, and Brouns F. Effect of caffeinated drinks on substrate metabolism, caffeine excretion, and performance. Journal of applied physiology 85: 709-715, 1998.

23. Schneiker KT, Bishop D, Dawson B, and Hackett LP. Effects of caffeine on prolonged intermittent-sprint ability in team-sport athletes. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 38: 578-585, 2006.

26. Stuart GR, Hopkins WG, Cook C, and Cairns SP. Multiple effects of caffeine on simulated high-intensity team-sport performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 37: 1998-2005, 2005.

32. Wiles JD, Bird SR, Hopkins J, and Riley M. Effect of caffeinated coffee on running speed, respiratory factors, blood lactate and perceived exertion during 1500-m treadmill running. Br J Sports Med 26: 116-120, 1992. 

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