Caffeine is now the world’s most popular stimulant ingested by over 90% of people including athletes because it can make them feel “damn good”.

But is it really that good for you? This article explores a balanced perspective on caffeine use for sports performance.

Caffeine has been used for decades as a way of buffering fatigue, prolonging endurance and enhancing concentration in many team and individual sports.  Sure, it gives you a “pick me up” but at what expense?

While some athletes will get the beneficial effects of enhanced focussed and reduced fatigue, others can get so fired up, they get the shakes, diarrhoea and their “rev” is excessive so they make poor tactical decisions during events. Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist affecting dopamine transmission and altering neurotransmitter function.

With long-term and high-volume caffeine intake, an increased risk of overstimulating the nervous system occurs. For some individuals, this looks and feels like anxiety, headaches, migraines, poor sleep, depression, angina, nutrient depletion, elevated blood pressure, addictive habits towards caffeine and severe fatigue.

Caffeine also contains a diterpene known as cafestol which has been shown to increase serum LDL cholesterol, increase aortic stiffness, blood pressure, endothelial dysfunction and homocysteine all of which contribute to heart disease- Yikes!

The other “doozy” with caffeine is that even if you are currently enjoying just one cuppa a day you most likely already have caffeine tolerance. As time goes on you’ll need to have more and more caffeine to feel any benefits.

So at this point, if you are sitting back saying “ I am good I don’t drink coffee” just take a breath. Just because you don’t drink coffee, doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming an excessive load of caffeine. Caffeine is found in many commonly consumed drinks and foods. Let’s take a look at the most common ones:

Food/ Beverage Size Caffeine in milligrams
Short black/ expresso coffee (1 cup) 100-200mg
Instant coffee (1 cup) 60-170mg
Decaffeinated coffee (1 cup) 2-4mg
Green tea (1 cup) 20mg
Tea (black) (1 cup) 30-100mg
NO Doz (1 tablet) 100mg
Revvies (1 strip) 40g
Sports gels (1 gel) 25mg-100mg
Coke and V energy drink (1 can) 50mg
Hot cocoa ( 1 mug) 60-120mg
Chocolate (60g) 10-50mg

So what to do?

The good news is that recent studies suggest the performance benefits of caffeine can be felt at low doses (1-3mg/kg) which are less likely to impact your health in other ways.  So theoretically speaking effects may be felt by athletes using the following amounts:

  • 50kg athlete    50-150mg;      ( 1 coffee)
  • 60kg athletes 60-180mg;
  • 70kg athlete    210mg;
  • 80kg athlete    80-240mg
  • 90kg athlete    90-270mg      ( 2 coffees)

Top tips for caffeine use for sports performance:

  1. If you are using caffeine for the first time try small amounts initially and infrequently so you don’t develop resistance. Attempt any trialling caffeine as part of your race day nutrition and hydration plan during training several times prior to race day, in similar conditions first to avoid unsavoury surprises.
  2. Caffeine may make you temporarily feel good it can also cause adverse performance effects. Caffeine displaces vitamins and minerals essential for athletic performance such as magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. Caffeine can irritate the kidneys and is a diuretic increasing the risk of dehydration in hot weather so you may need to increase your fluid intake. The most common issue with caffeine is diarrhoea. Taking caffeinated foods or drinks with food may help mitigate this problem.
  3. Avoid caffeine after lunchtime to avoid sleeping difficulties.
  4. High caffeine intake is inflammatory and prolonged use can contribute to systemic inflammation which underpins nearly all chronic conditions. Our suggestion is to enjoy caffeine in moderation and use a targeted approach in regard to sports performance.
  5. Smart considered and moderate use of caffeine may provide a performance edge but it will not suddenly turn you into some kind of superhero breaking world records. You still have to invest in sound balanced nutrition and hydration strategies, train smart, rest well and allow the natural adaptation of the human body to occur!
  6. As with all products, always remember to check each ingredient on the packaging of any sports product because some substances that may appear relatively benign may be banned under the Australian (ASADA) and World Drug Agency Association (WADA) guidelines. Rule of thumb- always do your own thorough research before using any supplement despite its popularity!
  7. If you are currently a heavy coffee drinker, wean yourself off coffee gently so you don’t go into an unprovoked tirade at your family or work colleagues as you deal with the headaches associated with detoxification. By reducing your intake gradually by ½ a cup a day, you are also more likely to allow your tolerance to reduce so when you settle for smart and more moderate use, you can obtain benefits at a lower dose. In some individuals’ withdrawal may be more comfortably achieved with the use of herbal adaptogens, liver support, activated vitamins and dietary intake of brassica family vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower) to ease the transition.
  8. If you are looking for coffee substitutes or reduced caffeine products you may like to try roasted dandelion tea, ginseng, high-quality green leaf tea, chai tea or Rooibos tea.
  9. Try different forms of caffeine in sports products rather than just coffee. Caffeinated sports products come in powders, gels, strips and tablets and all will be digested/ metabolised slightly differently in the body. Some athletes experience digestive issues with coffee but not strips, while others have issues with caffeinated gels but not powdered versions.
  10. Limit decaffeinated coffee. It may have reduced caffeine but many of the extraction methods still use chemical solvents that may be toxic.

About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female-centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://