You’ve probably heard of caffeine. The stimulant that keeps people awake in the morning, stops them falling asleep during university lectures and helps them to do those all-nighters watching Netflix (which I would not recommend)! It’s typically found in coffee and energy drinks, but it’s not uncommon to find them in sport based supplements, specifically ones aimed at running, swimming and cycling in particular.

So, what is it about caffeine that makes runners like Mo Farah take a double espresso shot 20 minutes before going out and winning 10,000m at the 2012 Olympic Games?

“As I make my way out to the track I feel this massive caffeine high come on,” Farah recalls. “I’m buzzing. My hands, my legs – everything is shaking.”

How Caffeine Works

Caffeine has the ability to help release more calcium in the muscles. This helps to boost the power provided by the muscles by increasing the strength of muscular contractions thus helping you to run faster. Research has also shown that caffeine can influence the brain’s perception of pain and exhaustion. This can help delay the onset of fatigue allowing you to run faster for longer.

A study at the University of Coventry found that “caffeine can cause a fibre type specific increase in muscle power output”, with muscles comprising mostly fast twitch fibres showing a 3% increase in power output, and those of predominantly slow twitch fibres demonstrating a 6% improvement. This tells us that caffeine can not only enhance performance in endurance events but even in sprints where a 3% difference can mean a fraction of a second which can prove crucial in winning a race!

How much Caffeine and when?

The recommended dose for caffeine to have an effect is between 2-5mg/kg. For most people, 200mg of caffeine is enough to see effects. This is about 2 – 3 cups of 250ml fresh filter coffee. For espressos, this can vary as espressos have a caffeine content varying from 30-200mg per shot (30ml).

For regular coffee drinkers whose body’s are more used to the effects of caffeine, a larger dose may be required to receive a more prominent performance-enhancing effect.

Caffeine reaches peak concentrations in blood plasma about an hour after consumption, which would suggest it is best consumed an hour before your race although the effects of caffeine can become prominent within half an hour or less of consumption. You can obtain caffeine through pills, shots, bars, coffee and various other sources. Ultimately, the source of caffeine does not matter so much as the amount ingested.

Can you have too much Caffeine?

Well, for starters, if you want to stay ‘legal’ and perform at an elite level then you have to keep caffeine concentrations below 12 ug,ml−1 in your urine. This is a very high dosage and it is very hard to go over the limit so I wouldn’t worry about this one (just an interesting fact).

As for whether too much caffeine can compromise performance, well researchers have found that those who consume over 9mg/kg of bodyweight experience a drop in performance.

If you’re not used to caffeine, it can make you feel jittery and raise your heart rate and blood pressure. The best way to find out how to use caffeine to supplement your performance is to experiment with consumption. It can be hard to know how much caffeine you’re consuming in coffee so it may be easier to find out by taking gels or shots that list the caffeine in the product.

The final note? Experiment with caffeine intake to find out what works for you. Everyone is different.

Do you use caffeine to supplement your performance? Let me know down below!