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The Role of Caffeine in Physical Activity – Osinga Nutrition


Caffeine is a tool that I use on days when I run or play soccer. I certainly do find a benefit to consuming caffeine before and during these periods of physical activity. However, I am also aware that it is important to be mindful of my caffeine consumption.

Today we’re talking about the role of caffeine in physical activity – why it’s beneficial, how to use it and when to use it.

As part of Caffeine Awareness Month. I’m teaming up with the Canadian Beverage Association to present this information to you today!

What Is Caffeine

Caffeine is one of the world’s favorites “pick me ups” and has known and loved benefits such as decreasing fatigue, increasing focus and concentration. In fact, coffee, tea and tap-water are the most commonly consumed beverages by Canadians, between the ages of 18-79. As well, more than 29 million servings of coffee were consumed in Canada in 2015.

Caffeine is found naturally found in 60 different plants, including coffee beans, cola nuts, guarana nuts and yerba mate. It can also be synthetically produced and added to soft drinks, energy drinks, dietary supplements and energy bars.

Although there are some health benefits, including enhancing physical activity performance, caffeine should be consumed in moderation to ensure optimal functionality and sleep hygiene.

Caffeine and Physical Activity

Caffeine is a popular ergogenic acid, and is widely used by athletes at all levels. An ergogenic acid is a substance that enhances energy production and performance in physical activity. The performance-enhancing effects of caffeine have been studied for over 100 years. The ergogenic effects of caffeine appear to result from antagonistic interactions with adenosine receptors in the central and peripheral nervous systems, increasing central drive and reducing the perception of effort and pain during exercise.

Showcasing what I have before my run – oatmeal and 1-2 small cups of coffee!

How Much Caffeine To Have Before and During Physical Activity

General caffeine guidelines recommend the consumption of 3-6 mg/kg of caffeine, typically 60 minutes before the start of exercise.

For me, that is 177 mg to about 350 mg. However, there is certainly inter-individual variation in response to this standardized protocol. Some athletes are more caffeine sensitive than others. I personally, don’t think I would do well with consuming 350 mg of caffeine before exercise, as I am more caffeine sensitive and that is getting close to the upper limit of the recommended amount of caffeine per day, established by Health Canada, which is 400 mg/day. The degree of caffeine sensitivity/ tolerance could be explained by genetic variations, related to caffeine metabolism or adenosine receptor density.

Additional research has found that moderate to high caffeine doses (5–9 mg/kg body mass (bm)), ingested before and during exercise, increased endurance performance in laboratory and field settings. These doses are associated with increased heart rate and blood catecholamines, lactate, free fatty acid and glycerol levels in many subjects. However, side effects that often occur include gastrointestinal upset, nervousness, mental confusion, inability to focus and disturbed sleep.

Lower caffeine doses (<3 mg/kg bm ~200 mg) taken before, during and late in exercise also increase endurance performance, and do not cause the physiological changes and side effects noted above in most individuals.

I’ve certainly felt the effect of too much caffeine – which has impacted my sleep quality and levels of anxiety. If I am anxious or sleep-deprived before playing soccer, I don’t perform as well!

Caffeine Use In Soccer

Caffeine is an ergogenic in many forms of short-term high-intensity exercise and team stop-and-go sports, where anaerobic energy provision plays a significant role in performance success – such as soccer!

In research specifically related to soccer, acute caffeine intake in a moderate dose (1.5 to 7mg/kg before exercise has the capacity to improve several soccer-related abilities and skills such as vertical jump height, repeated sprint ability, running distances during a game and passing accuracy.

It should be noted that doses up to 7 mg/kg would provide more than the recommended amount of caffeine/day. Please still follow the recommended caffeine amounts presented in guidelines from Health Canada.

Caffeine Use In Running

Caffeine has been shown to positively impact endurance performance in sports such as running. Research has demonstrated that caffeine has a small but evident effect on endurance performance when taken in moderate doses (3–6 mg/kg) as well as an overall improvement following caffeine compared to placebo in mean power output and time-trial completion time.

It is also likely helpful to consume caffeine during a long run or race. Greater responsiveness to small amount of caffeine (2-3 mg/kg) may be seen when it is taken during a race, around the onset of fatigue.

I’m usually consuming 25-100 mg of caffeine during my run.

How I Use Caffeine In Physical Activity

I have been running and playing soccer for years, so I have been able to experiment with different amounts of caffeine consumption before and during exercise. I usually consume two cups of homebrewed coffee (~ 200 mg of caffeine) before my run and before soccer. As I am currently training for a full marathon in May, I do find it is helpful to consume additional caffeine during my long runs (which are 2 hours +). I will typically consume that caffeine in the form of energy gels, that contains another 100 mg of caffeine. This has helped reduce fatigue for me and helped with endurance during my long runs.

Bottom Line:

Caffeine is an effective ergogenic acid during physical activity, helping to reduce fatigue and enhance performance. However, it is important to be mindful of caffeine intake so that we don’t exceed the 400 mg/day or 300 mg during pregnancy.

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