Caf­feine can boost work­outs even in daily cof­fee-quaf­fers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - GRETCHEN REYNOLDS

Caf­feine im­proves ath­letic per­for­mance. This is a truth al­most uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged in ex­er­cise sci­ence.

But sci­en­tists, coaches and ath­letes also have thought that to gain any per­for­mance boost from tak­ing caf­feine be­fore an event, an ath­lete had to ab­stain from the stuff for days or weeks be­fore a big event.

A new study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ap­plied Phys­i­ol­ogy in­ti­mates, how­ever, that these ideas about caf­feine and per­for­mance are out of date and that some­one can swill cof­fee ev­ery day and still get a caf­feine per­for­mance buzz when needed.

Caf­feine is, of course, one of the world’s most pop­u­lar mind-al­ter­ing sub­stances, used by mil­lions of us to jump-start our slug­gish morn­ing brain func­tion and goose alert­ness through­out the day.

Taken an hour or so be­fore ex­er­cise, it also en­ables most ath­letes to run, bike, swim or oth­er­wise per­form a lit­tle faster or more vig­or­ously than if they do not have caf­feine first. Caf­feine pro­vides this boost by mak­ing it eas­ier for mus­cles to burn body fat, of which most peo­ple have am­ple sup­plies. It also in­creases alert­ness, which seems to make ex­er­cise feel less stren­u­ous. (Caf­feine is not banned from sports ex­cept in very high doses.)

But caf­feine users tend to be­come ha­bit­u­ated to its ef­fects, as those of us who have watched our morn­ing con­sump­tion creep up by a cup or three can at­test.

So ath­letes typ­i­cally have been ad­vised to quit drink­ing cof­fee or any­thing else that con­tains caf­feine for most of the week be­fore a ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion, on the the­ory that do­ing so should re­duce their ha­bit­u­a­tion and am­plify the ef­fects of caf­feine on the day of the event.

But Bruno Gualano, a pro­fes­sor of phys­i­ol­ogy and nu­tri­tion at the Univer­sity of Sao Paulo in Brazil, was un­con­vinced. A recre­ational cy­clist and com­mit­ted cof­fee drinker — “as a good Brazil­ian, cof­fee is part of my diet,” he says — he thought it pos­si­ble that ath­letes could ben­e­fit from tak­ing caf­feine be­fore an event, even if they had not ab­stained in the days be­fore­hand.

To test that idea, he and his col­leagues first re­cruited 40 com­pet­i­tive male cy­clists from Sao Paulo and in­vited them to the univer­sity’s hu­man per­for­mance lab for a se­ries of health and per­for­mance tests.

They also ques­tioned the rid­ers ex­ten­sively about their nor­mal in­take of caf­feine. How many cups of cof­fee, tea, cola, Red Bull and so on did they drink ev­ery day or week?

Based on that in­for­ma­tion, the re­searchers strat­i­fied the rid­ers into a low-caf­feine group, which av­er­aged about a cup or less of cof­fee or other caf­feinated drinks on most days; a mod­er­ate-caf­feine group, which downed the equiv­a­lent of about two cups of cof­fee on most days; and a high-caf­feine group, which drank about three cups of cof­fee or more on most days.

These rid­ers then re­ported to the lab three more times. At each visit, they com­pleted a spe­cial­ized type of time trial, dur­ing which they rode as hard as pos­si­ble un­til they had burned through about 450 calo­ries, a task de­signed to take these rid­ers about 30 min­utes. (They were asked not to eat or drink any­thing in the morn­ing be­fore re­port­ing to the lab.)

An hour be­fore one ride, they swal­lowed a tablet that con­tained about 400 mil­ligrams of caf­feine, an amount equiv­a­lent to about four cups of reg­u­lar cof­fee.

An hour be­fore an­other ride, they re­ceived an iden­ti­cal-look­ing tablet that con­tained only gelatin as a placebo. The rid­ers were not told what was in the tablets.

They did not re­ceive any tablets be­fore their fi­nal ride.

Af­ter­ward, the re­searchers com­pared their times. Al­most all of the rid­ers had ped­aled hard­est and fastest after swal­low­ing the caf­feine pill, com­plet­ing their ride 3.3 per­cent faster on av­er­age com­pared with when they had had no pill and 2.2 per­cent faster than after they took the placebo. For com­par­i­son, a 2 per­cent to 3 per­cent gain in per­for­mance could shave sev­eral min­utes from a recre­ational run­ner’s marathon race time.

In­ter­est­ingly, the re­sults were the same whether the rid­ers nor­mally were light, mod­er­ate or heavy caf­feine users. The cy­clists who usu­ally chugged large amounts of cof­fee or other caf­feine drinks ev­ery day re­ceived the same boost from caf­feine as light cof­fee drinkers, even though they had not ab­stained from caf­feine for days be­fore­hand.

“No mat­ter the ha­bit­ual caf­feine in­take in the diet, acute caf­feine sup­ple­men­ta­tion can im­prove per­for­mance,” Gualano says.

This find­ing could be help­ful to ath­letes who might wel­come a per­for­mance boost from caf­feine but not at the cost of es­chew­ing cof­fee for days be­fore­hand, he says.

But there are sig­nif­i­cant caveats. This study in­volved fit young men. Whether women and those of us in less en­vi­able phys­i­cal con­di­tion will re­spond sim­i­larly to caf­feine be­fore ex­er­cise must still be stud­ied, Gualano says.

Large doses of caf­feine also can have un­de­sir­able and even dan­ger­ous side ef­fects, in­clud­ing jit­ters, headaches, heart pal­pi­ta­tions and stom­ach up­set, even for peo­ple who are reg­u­lar caf­feine users.

If you wish to use caf­feine to bet­ter your phys­i­cal per­for­mance, Gualano says, start with small doses. One cup of cof­fee an hour be­fore ex­er­cise may be enough to ease and im­prove your sub­se­quent work­out.

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