Corporate Athlete 101: Caffeine

Here is the second question in a series I’ve received from Jeremy Jauncey.  The following Q&A will be used in the nutrition 101 package for our corporate athlete plan.

“What are the positives and negatives of caffeine use? Everyone uses it to get over lack of sleep and poor diet… I’d like to clearly explain why it’s bad (and where it can be helpful)”

Is caffeine “bad”?

Caffeine is not “bad” (that is a myth).  Caffeine occurs naturally in foods that people have been consuming for thousands of years– yerba mate (tea), coffea arabica (coffee), the cacao bean (cocoa, i.e., chocolate).  Caffeine is contained naturally in many seeds, plants, and fruits.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) classify the stimulant as “GRAS” – generally recognized as safe, suggesting a “moderate intake” as ~300mg per day (three 8-oz cups of coffee).

So then, caffeine is “good”?

In nutritional terms, classifying a food and beverage as either good or bad is vague.  Caffeine in its recommended dosing is considered safe.  The majority of research at levels ~300mg shows a positive effect of caffeine.  Some purported benefits include reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.   Protective effects might exist apart from caffeine (antioxidants found in tea, coffee, dark chocolate, etc).  On the other hand, hazing your drink with sugar, cream and syrups surely counter those beneficial effects.

Caffeine’s effects

The effects of consuming caffeine within normal limits vary by individual.  Sensitivity to caffeine depends on the frequency of consumption, metabolic rate, body weight and overall health.  Caffeine’s half-life (time to metabolize half the amount consumed) is approximately five hours.  Caffeine does not accumulate in your body and is excreted after consumption within hours.  This means drinking close to bed time, depending upon your body’s sensitivity, might keep you awake far into the night.

Caffeine and exercise performance

Research suggests caffeine enhances physical performance and mental alertness in athleticism.(1)  As well, caffeine improved subjects’ performance who partook in intense aerobic interval exercise (four to eight minutes) and high-intensity aerobic exercise (20 to 60 minutes).(2)

To note, if untrained, caffeine won’t be the miracle substance to turn you from sedentary to marathoner.  Additionally, the dose should not be much: 1-3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight one hour pre-exercise has been the dosing and timing used in studies.  Another study trialed six mini doses of 1 mg caffeine per kilogram of body weight spread over the two hours of training and found a 3% improvement in cyclists’ times.  They also found similar effects experimenting with 6mg per kilogram one hour prior to cycling and 1.5mg per kilogram consumed over the last third of training.(3)

What should you do…

Caffeine has positive effects on performance, mental alertness and overall health when consumed in its moderate safety zone (~300 mg per day).  Read a previous post on what’s a normal amount amount of coffee for more info on dosing.  If you are currently using caffeine as an ergogenic aid, reevaluate dosing and timing.  If you do not enjoy natural substances that are caffeinated, you do not need to begin eating or drinking caffeinated foods/beverages.

(1) Burke L, Cort M, Cox G, et al. Supplements and sports foods. In: Burke L, Deakin V (eds). Clinical Sports Nutrition, 3rd ed. Australia: McGraw-Hill; 2006.

(2) Spriet L. Caffeine. In: Bahrke MS, Yesalis CE (eds). Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics; 2002.

(3) Cox GR, Desbrow B, Montgomery PG, et al. Effect of different protocols of caffeine intake on metabolism and endurance performance. J Appl Physiol. 2002;93(3):990-999.

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