Caffeine Use for Athletes

When it comes to nutritional supplementation for athletes, there are only a few (legal) substances which have decent scientific evidence for their improvement of performance.  We’re not talking about massive improvement, but there are some supplements which do provide statistically significant benefit in the right scenario.  Perhaps the most often used, and misused, in this category is caffeine.

Caffeine is found in coffee and tea, making it the most widely-consumed psychoactive substance on the planet.  It is estimated that human beings ingest, on average, one serving per person per day across all cultures.   Physiologically, caffeine acts at a neurological level, decreasing the activity at adenosine receptors.  Adenosine causes relaxation and a sedative effect, so blocking this will lead to a heightened sense of alertness.  Caffeine also leads to secondary benefits at a muscular level, aiding in contraction of the muscle fibers.

As an athlete, the effects of caffeine can be harnessed for modest performance gains.  Again, these are not huge benefits, but they can be significant.  I bet I know what you’re thinking.  If caffeine is legitimately performance-enhancing, why is it not banned by WADA?  Well, it was conditionally prohibited until 2003, but it is hard to justify banning one of the most commonly consumed products in the entire world!  Additionally, for a substance to be banned by WADA, it must meet 2 of these 3 criteria:

1. It has the “potential to enhance or enhances sports performance”

2. It is "an actual or potential health risk to the athlete”

3. Its “use violates the spirit of sport” as outlined in the WADA Code

* “Substances or methods which mask the effect of prohibited substances are also prohibited.

Caffeine only meets one of these three criteria.  However, WADA maintains a “watch list” of substances that are closely monitored despite being legal.  Items on this list are reviewed each year and could face prohibition, but that is unlikely to happen with regard to caffeine.

Chances are, you are already using caffeine.  Maybe you drink coffee or tea, or perhaps you are using caffeine gels or even tablets.  From a performance standpoint, do you know why or how to use it?

Effects of Caffeine on Athletic Performance (not all beneficial!)

  • Increases aerobic capacity
  • Increases power output
  • Increases available fuel (free fatty acids and blood glucose)
  • Decreases perceived exertion
  • May improve reaction time
  • Decreases fatigue
  • Increases heart rate
  • Increases anxiety
  • Increases body temperature
  • Increases lactate production
  • Can lead to insomnia and poor recovery

Dosing - Amount

  • Needs to be individualized.  Habitual consumption can lead to tolerance.
  • Benefits generally shown to occur at doses of 1-3 mg per kilogram of body weight.  For most, that works out to roughly 100-200mg.  That is roughly the amount of caffeine in a cup of brewed coffee. 
  • Moderate doses (as above) are all that is needed.  More is not necessarily better, as there are potential performance detriments that can occur.
  • Caffeine can exacerbate some common medical conditions.  You should not use caffeine without first consulting with your physician.  This is not just the standard medical disclaimer!  It can cause problems for many people.  Talk to your doctor.

Dosing - Timing

  • Timing depends somewhat on the purpose.
  • Central nervous system stimulation (wakefulness and attention) occurs relatively quickly after ingestion.
  • Muscular effects lag a bit.
  • In general, it is recommended that caffeine be ingested roughly 60 minutes before it is desired to take effect.

In general, caffeine for athletic pursuits is best reserved for competition.  I don’t see a significant role for training, other than enjoying a cup of your favorite espresso before a ride or run.  One caveat though, is that you should always practice your nutrition and supplementation strategy before the race.  As there is some individuality to caffeine use and its effect, do take the time to hone your strategy in training before you toe the line of the big race.

Dietary Periodization

There has been a lot written recently about the merits of fat, the evils of carbohydrates, and the obvious scientific idiocy of those that propose such a diet for performance-oriented athletes.  Athletes and sports scientists sure take their nutrition personally!  However, as is often the case, the truth hiding beneath the rhetoric is never so cut-and-dry.  Yes, fats can be very good for your health and your performance.  But the wrong fats can be terrible things to put in your body.  (Think about the difference between an avocado and a deep-fried twinkie!)  The same can be true for carbohydrates and proteins.  Most foods with which a reasonable athlete would choose to fuel their workouts are neither inherently good nor bad.  We can argue all day about what athletes should eat, but unless we include a discussion about when they should eat it, the point is being missed.

When you are planning your workouts for the week, do you plan to do intervals every day?  Why not?  We know they are good for your performance.  Why not just do more intervals?  Speed work all the time!  Of course you wouldn’t do that, because each workout has a purpose and performance is multifaceted.  Whether or not you are familiar with the concept, you employ “periodization” when planning your training.  Periodization dictates that there is a time and purpose for each training session.  Furthermore, there is a season for different types of training.  Your weeks of “base” training will look different than your “build” phase as you lead into race season.  And your “taper” will look different still.

The concept of periodizing training load has been around for decades, and it is a widely accepted foundation of sports science.  The same ideas can, and should, be applied to nutrition as well.  The fuel your body needs to support a week of “base” training (slower, longer runs at low intensity) will look very different than those which are required for ideal dietary support of higher-intensity weeks (track work, hill repeats, etc).  These are very different physiologic efforts.

When running at an easier pace, your body is more apt to burn fat for its primary fuel.  This is a very efficient process that allows you to utilize stores which, in even the leanest athlete, are plentiful (tens of thousands of calories!).  As your effort increases, you switch to a metabolism which is more dependent on burning carbohydrate for fuel.  Carbs, stored as glycogen, are a very limited resource (only a couple thousand calories, at best).  If you can train your body to work at higher intensities while still preferring to burn fat, you will achieve a higher level of “metabolic efficiency.”  You will avoid the swings in blood sugar levels and the resultant, regular need to squeeze down another gel.  How does one achieve this efficiency?  The answer is “practice and periodization of diet.”

If you want your body to increasingly prefer burning fat as its primary fuel, you have to train it to do so.  Rather than a typical endurance-athlete diet consisting of 60% to 80% carbohydrates, you must decrease your carb intake and give the body more fat to use as fuel.  If the constant onslaught of carbohydrate is mitigated, along with the resultant insulin response, then the body will begin to lose its dependance on regular carb intake.  But it’s not as simple as that.  That is the part that, when presented in isolation, gets people riled up!  How can an athlete maintain a high level of intensity on such a diet?!?  Well, remember my prior mention of “periodization”?

The advice and expertise that is often absent in dietary articles online or in print, is that an athletes’s nutrition must support the task at hand.  Train your body to use fat more efficiently, yes.  But as you accomplish that, you can begin to use high-glycemic carbohydrate sources as “jet fuel” for your intense training and racing efforts.  Carbohydrates, and even sugars, are not bad!  Use them for a dedicated purpose, and they will provide huge benefit to your performance.

Proper dietary periodization should work in this manner:

Of course, your fueling protocol will be specific to your needs.  This will vary based on your physiology and your goals.  If you primarily run 5Ks and 10Ks, then your needs will be very different than that of an ultra-marathoner or multisport athlete.

Every workout has a purpose.  In the same way, every meal should have a purpose.  Sure, some runs are just for fun.  Some meals are just for fun as well!  That’s a good purpose in my book.  But to the degree that your training is goal-oriented, your diet should be as well.  Don’t let this crucial, often-neglected component of your training be the undoing of your hours spent running.  You can’t outrun a bad diet!  Don’t run so you can eat more.  Eat so you can run better!

Your New Secret Weapon! - Daily Movement Routine

Athletes are good at having a plan for their training.  Many will follow a coach’s prescription or plan their own training days ahead of time.  They will lay out their long days, their hill repeats, their lactate tolerance intervals.  Multisport athletes will try to balance their various sports, and many will work in 2-3 days of strength training as well.  But far fewer will address a daily movement routine.  Yet in my opinion, such a routine is a critical component of successful training and the crafting of a well-functioning, resilient body.

A “Daily Movement Routine” is simply a set of exercises that each work on a foundational movement pattern.  You’ll address your squat, your gluteal muscle firing, your shoulder mobility.  It is very basic, yet not always easy.  The exercises rarely involve weights of any kind.  They serve to ensure your body moves appropriately.  You already move a lot; make sure you are moving well.

For all of its importance, your movement routine does not need to be onerous.  You may be thinking, “I have no more time in the week to add training!”  I’m not asking you to.  This is not extra training, this is a change to what you currently do.  Your movement routine should consist of 10-15 minutes every morning, and you can feel free to cut 10 minutes off your training later that day if needed.  This is that important!

Here’s how it can work, or at least how I implement it.

1. Wake up

2. Have a glass of water (+/- lemon juice and/or apple cider vinegar)

3. Setup and begin to brew your coffee or tea, if that’s your thing.

4. While the coffee is brewing, take 10-15 quiet minutes to gently move your body through full ranges of motion while encouraging postural stability muscles to begin to do their job for the day.

5. When finished, grab that cup of coffee and spend some time reading.  Avoid your phone and email until you’ve had some time to yourself.  Once you open the email, it’s “game on” for the day.  You deserve some time before the daily onslaught starts.

Personally, I have 4 different routines that I rotate through.  Each has a purpose, and the variation keeps the mornings from getting stale.  There is one for a day in which I may swim or do an upper body workout in the gym.  Two that I use before a run or bike ride.  And one that is purely for recovery and relaxation.  As an example, here is what that recovery routine looks like for me.  (Click on the links for info on each movement.)

1. Founder (From “Foundation Training”)

2. Woodpecker (From “Foundation Training”)

3. Deep Squat

4. Couch Stretch

5. Pigeon Stretch

6. Side Lying Windmill

7. Five minutes of foam rolling

8. A few minutes on the Thoracic Peanut

9. And if I have extra time, I’ll spend 20-30 minutes in the NormaTec boots while I read.

I recommend working with a professional to determine some of the movements that your body needs to improve.  At Podium Sports Medicine, we use a Functional Movement Screen to do this.  After evaluating seven basic movement patterns, we can prescribe some “corrective exercises” to address the deficiencies uncovered by the test.  This is how I came up with many of the movements that I’ve added to my routine.  There are some “generic” prescriptions that will work for many athletes, but without that individualization you are only getting a fraction of the potential benefit.  Find out where your problems are lurking, and address them daily with a structured movement routine.  As a side benefit, you’ll feel fantastic for starting your day off this way!

Bike Fits at Podium

We've revamped our Bike Fitting service at Podium Sports Medicine, and we think you'll like it.  There is no more comprehensive service available!  We have two products, both of which address a specific need cyclists have when scheduling a bike fit.

Additionally, we're excited to partner with Smokey's Mobile Bicycle Repair during these fit sessions.  Every year bikes become faster, more intricate, and harder to work on.  We will now have a professional mechanic onsite to make adjustments to the bike and ensure your ride is well cared for.  Smokey's is a full-service mobile bike shop, providing the same service and many of the same products that you'd find at your local shop...but they come to you.

Bike Fits at Podium are highly specialized and time-intensive.  You will work with at least three professionals throughout the process.  These fits are not for everyone!  But if you want to get the most out of your time in the saddle, or if you just want to ride without pain, we can get you on the right path.

Performance Fit ($450)

Our Performance Fit ensures you get the most out of your position on the bike.  You will start with a full Functional Movement Screen so that we can better understand your body's strengths and limitations with regard to both mobility and stability issues.  You'll then undergo MuscleSound scanning to assess for any imbalances at a muscular level.  Only after gathering this information, you'll get on the bike and begin to undergo video analysis using our Dartfish software.

Often times a bike fit comes down to a few positions that could all reasonably work for a rider.  In such a situation we can use our Computrainer and lactate testing to determine the physiologic cost of different positions.  If you can hold 250 watts at 2.0 mmol of lactate in one position, but your lactate at 250 watts is 3.5 mmol in another, then you'll want to chose the most physiologcially efficient position.


Medical Fit ($350)

Medical Bike Fits are designed to address a specific ache or pain experienced on the bike.  The goal of this service is pain-free riding.  You will start with a full Functional Movement Screen so that we can better understand your body's strengths and limitations with regard to both mobility and stability issues.  Careful attention will be paid to your biomechanical limitations and the optimization of your movement on and off the bike.