Caffeine: A High Performance Athlete’s Best Friend

You find your workout energy diminishing and require a chemical jolt to up the training ante; your drowsy afternoon meeting threatens to send to you to dreamland; your late night study session proves fruitless, until, that is, you flood your system with an elixir known for its energizing properties. That’s right, under times which require high mental and physical acuity we often turn to that most trusted of pick me ups: caffeine.

Caffeine

The world’s most popular psychoactive substance, caffeine currently enjoys unprecedented popularity as a stimulating beverage in the form of coffee or tea and, for those looking for an effective pre-workout “hit”, a variety of energy drinks. But effective though these products may be, is there an upper limit to how much of their active ingredient we should consume? Might caffeine consumption be dangerous at certain levels? While the jury is out on exactly how much is too much – assuming reasonable judgement is used (1000 cups of coffee per day might just be pushing it) – there is a suggestion that chronic adrenal exhaustion resulting from daily fluctuations in energy and alertness may occur when more than five cups of strong coffee (each containing 100mg or more of caffeine) are consumed per day. However, as will be expanded upon later in this article, it’s the constant consumption of coffee, or other beverages, that may create problems for the consumer, not the caffeine itself.

Indeed, it is athletes, such as those who wisely supplement with energy products prior to working out, who seem to adopt the best approach to caffeine consumption of all: use it sparingly, but in respectable quantities to receive the most significant response from it. If we consume caffeine often, we build a tolerance to it and, increasingly, we receive fewer benefits from it. Those who save their caffeine consumption for key times, such as an energy supplement providing 200+mg of caffeine taken 1-2 times per day prior to training or before meals to enhance the thermogenic effect of food, find it will work its energy-boosting magic in a consistent fashion.

How Does Caffeine Get the Job Done?

Coffee Beans

Aside from being the most heavily used stimulant in existence, caffeine is one of the first to be used on a mass scale. In fact, caffeine has, for millennia, powered industry, knowledge economies and civilization as we know it today. The attraction to caffeine – medically known as a trimethylxanthine (a xanthene alkaloid) – stems from the energizing and stimulating effects it has on the brain.

Although it is used in a variety of ways, many of which are pleasurable to the taste buds, pure caffeine in its isolated form actually has the appearance of a white, crystalline power, and tastes very bitter. Prior to being used for commercial production, or sold in its natural state, caffeine is extracted from a variety of sources: tea, the coffee tree, guarana berries, kola nut, cocoa, and yerba mate, thus, caffeine might also be considered a food product.

A central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, caffeine is used medically to stimulate cardiac function and as a mild diuretic – to produce urine production and help with water excretion from the body by inhibiting the re-absorption of sodium and water from the kidneys. However, its main use is as a recreational energy booster, which increases feelings of alertness and arousal. Perhaps this explains why Starbucks is one of the most profitable franchises in all of modern history.

Stimulate to Annihilate – The Weights

annihilate

Caffeine stimulates the body by activating the sympathetic branch of the CNS, which leads to increased heart rate, improved blood flow to working muscles, a release of glucose by the liver and decreased blood flow to the skin and inner organs. The CNS is stimulated by the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline), which is released from the pituitary gland, often in response to a perceived threat. An effect called competitive inhibition, which causes an interruption on a pathway that normally serves to regulate nerve conduction (by suppressing post-synaptic potentials), occurs when caffeine, which is structurally very similar to the molecule adenosine, binds to the surface of adenosine receptors without activating them. Adenosine plays an important role in sleep and wakefulness. Caffeine, by attaching to adenosine receptors, prevents an over-accumulation of adenosine in the cells and, in turn, helps to counter adenosine’s sleep-inducing effects. And it is this process which causes the release of epinephrine and subsequent central nervous system stimulation.

Caffeine, technically not an energy producer in its own right, is a substance that curtails one of the main processes by which the nervous system is calmed.

Contained in our cells is also a molecule called cyclic AMP (which acts as a second messenger, carrying signals from the cell surface to proteins within the cell) which serves as a messenger in the epinephrine release process. Caffeine promotes cyclic AMP storage in our cells, thus blocking its removal. This, in turn, intensifies and prolongs the actions of epinephrine (a stimulating molecule). Caffeine also acts as an erogenic (it improves our capacity for physical and mental work) based on its previously described effects, as well as the actions of its various metabolites (smaller molecules that serve various biological functions in their role as products of metabolism). These metabolites and their actions follow:

  1. Theobromine: increases oxygen and nutrient flow to the brain, serving as a vasodilator.
  2. Theophylline: relaxes the smooth muscles (most notably the bronchioles) and increases heart rate efficiency.
  3. Paraxanthine: aids lipolysis (the breakdown of fat for energy).

Caffeine’s Uses

Caffeine Uses

With its popularity soaring, caffeine – in its many forms – is used for reasons other than pure recreation and enjoyment.

As a Pre-Workout Supplement

Caffeine is widely used by athletes as an erogenic aid. It reportedly provides such positive effects as increased energy levels, reaction time and alertness, along with improvements in muscular and cardiovascular endurance, such as in ALLMAX Nutrition’s pre-workout supplement, RAZOR8.

Experts believe that caffeine causes the muscle cells to utilize proportionally greater amounts of fat than would otherwise be used under ‘normal’ conditions.

Fatty acids released from muscle tissue – in the presence of caffeine – to sustain endurance work are thought to have a muscle-glycogen sparing effect. Thus, in introducing caffeine pre-game, glycogen can be used more readily during the latter stages of an event or workout, thus enabling an athlete to train longer through their utilization of the larger fatty acid energy stores. This process may occur in the presence of one of caffeine’s metabolites, paraxanthine, and its ability to aid lipolysis. The critical period for glycogen sparing is thought to occur in the first 15 minutes of exercise. Here, caffeine has been shown to decrease glycogen utilization by as much as 50 percent. It’s also worth noting that the events or training sessions most likely to benefit from caffeine consumption have been shown to be of a longer duration (40 minutes or more), during which the athlete is training at a moderate intensity.

As noted, caffeine stimulates the brain, and, in turn, activates the sympathetic branch of the CNS, thus promoting mental alertness. As such, the body undergoes a positive transformation to become more attuned to its surroundings and is resultantly quicker to respond.

This has obvious implications for the athlete, among which include a reduction in the perception of physical effort expended during intensive work and an increased reaction time, faster movement and heightened situational awareness.

Heart rate efficiency is also improved, as is oxygen and nutrient flow to the brain, all of which contribute to improved athletic performance. To enhance athletic performance it is thought that 1-2 cups of strong coffee or an equivalent 200-300 mgs in tablet form is best (the best option of all being a quality pre-workout energy drink).

 To Improve Mental Acuity

Another of caffeine’s erogenic effects is its ability to heighten metal acuity and improve cognitive function. It has been shown that 75-150mg of caffeine will elevate neural activity in several parts of the brain which assist with the completion of simple intellectual tasks – for example: relatively passive, automatic, data-driven tasks such as performing simple arithmetic, and auditory reaction time.

Although caffeine can help with more complex tasks (logical and numerical reasoning, complicated arithmetic and reading comprehension), this often hinges on the personality of the user and a series of other factors including time of the day and immediate environment.

Many people report positive benefits produced through caffeine consumption before mental tasks such as studying for a test.

Caffeine is also believed to aid memory. It is thought that because caffeine plays a role in adrenaline (norepinephrine) production in the brain, and adrenaline – due to its fight or flight function – can improve one’s memory for important events, memory in other brain areas is also enhanced with caffeine intake.

To Improve Body Composition

To lose fat, many are turning to caffeine in its most common form, coffee, or, better still, as a supplement to hasten lipolysis, or the breakdown of adipose (fat) tissue. Caffeine’s metabolite, paraxanthine, frees fatty acids to be used as fuel in place of glycogen. Caffeine is also thought to increase the thermogenic effect of food, which helps with total energy expenditure and weight loss; caffeine is also thought to suppress appetite. Many of the best weight loss/energy boosting supplements on the market today list caffeine as a key ingredient.

As Therapy

Caffeine is widely used as a pain reliever – primarily as a way to treat headache (one such product is Excedrin, which also contains acetaminophen and aspirin). Caffeine works as a vasodilator, thus increasing blood flow to the brain to help counter the painful effects of headache. Additionally, caffeine can be used in cases where breathing is depressed (such as when one overdoses with heroin or other opiates). Given its dilating effects on the airway, caffeine is also thought to be useful in the treatment of asthma, with some studies finding modest benefits.

Conclusion

Caffeine is society’s most widely used stimulant, and, as we’ve discussed, this is for a wide variety of reasons: it provides a stimulating and intoxicating effect, it gives the user physical and mental benefits, it’s used for medical and therapeutic purposes and it serves as a very effective pre-workout supplement. For example, ALLMAX Nutrition’s Razor8 Blast Powder, with its 182mg of pharmaceutical-grade pure synthetic caffeine and 23mg of di caffeine malate, along with a host of additionally important ingredients needed to elevate human performance, both mental and physical, fits the bill nicely in this respect.

If caffeine consumption were to end tomorrow, 70% of the world’s productivity might decline markedly – such is the widespread dependence we have on our espressos and lattes. In light of its popularity and reported benefits, adding caffeine to your regime might just elevate your performance to uncharted levels. Remember, when used properly caffeine can be a high-performing individual’s best friend; when misused it can scatter your focus, keep you awake at night and, ultimately, render you tolerant to its most important effects.

 

Sources:

  • Aetna, InteliHealth.(2006). Coffee, Grounds for Concern? [Online]
  • Davis, P,. N. Various Effects of Caffeine on the Body. Clinical Nutrition Review: April 1990.
  • Harrie. J.R, Caffeine and Headache. JAMA 213.4.628.1970
  • Lutz, E.G_ Restless Legs. Anxiety, and Caffeinism. J Clin. Psychiatr, 693,1978.
  • McNaughton, L. Ergogenic Effects of Caffeine. Clinical Nutrition Review. January 1990.
  • Trice, I., and Haymes, E. (1995). “Effects of caffeine ingestion on exercise-induced changes during high intensity, intermittent exercise”. International Journal of Sports Nutrition. 37-44.
  • Weinberg BA, Bealer BK. The world of caffeine. New York & London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-415-92722-6.

 

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

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