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Performance Enhancing Supplements:
Part 1, Caffeine

By certified sports nutritionist Marcia Homer, MS, CSN


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Marcia Homer writes:

This is a series of articles on ergogenic aids – performance enhancing supplements.  Part 1 is on my favorite ergogenic aid – caffeine! (Full Disclosure: several Venti Starbucks cups were harmed in the writing of this article..)

As endurance athletes, we all have our different reasons for doing what we do.  Maybe we’re addicted to the endorphins, maybe we love the rush of competing, or maybe we just want everyone who looks us up on Facebook to marvel in awe at our perfectly defined muscles or our super active lifestyles (you know you’re wondering if that head cheerleader in high school has looked at your Facebook page…)

Since the first caveman threw a spear at a wild boar and thought “Hmm, I’m pretty sure I can throw that farther”, we have all been searching for a way to enhance athletic performance.  Athletes have done remarkably wild things in search of that elusive competitive edge.  Endurance runners run for several months out of the year in the dizzying air of the Colorado Rockies, Wade Boggs insisted on eating chicken before every game and Lance Armstrong, um, well, we all know how THAT turned out.

The fact is there are several perfectly legal ergogenic aids that we, as athletes, can incorporate into our training routines.  This series of articles will look specifically at caffeine, creatine, chocolate milk, protein, carbohydrates, and BCAA’s, Beta-alanine and other specific vitamins and minerals.

I distinctly remember boarding the bus for my first marathon in St. George, Utah in the fall of 1990.  While every other runner was sporting a fancy water bottle or a 32 oz. Gatorade, I felt very naïve and conspicuous as I held tightly to my 20 oz. bottle of Diet Coke, a sacred, decade-long habit.  As it turns out, maybe I was onto something.  Many athletes enjoy a caffeine buzz as a morning eye-opener, during daily coffee breaks, before training and during competitions.  Its stimulating effect on the central nervous system (CNS) reduces the sensation of fatigue, perception of work effort and even pain. Moreover, caffeine has been shown to improve mental acuity, focus, and technical skill during and after strenuous activity.  It is for these reasons that caffeine may be the most widely used stimulant in the world. 

Coffee cup

Coffee, a simple ergogenic aid

The Science
There is plenty of scientific evidence that caffeine has benefits as an ergogenic aid.  A recent study out of the Journal of Sports Sciences reported that ingesting 3-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight 90 minutes prior to exercise increased endurance cycle time trial performance in male athletes.  To put this into perspective, for a 175 pound athlete, 3-6 mg per kg/body weight equals approximately 3-5 regular size 8 oz. cups of coffee.  The study also looked at an increased caffeine dosage of 9 mg per kg/body weight and found that the higher dose did not have a significant impact on performance.

But wait, there’s more! Caffeine has also been studied not just for its proven physical effects on athletic endurance but mental and cognitive benefits as well.  Desbrow and Leveritt 2007 performed a cross-sectional study on the athletes competing at the 2005 Ironman Triathlon World Championships.  141 athletes were surveyed regarding their perceptions of caffeine’s effects including endurance, speed, power, strength, concentration and calmness.  Overwhelmingly, the data clearly demonstrated that it was the perception among most of these experienced endurance athletes that caffeine was ergogenic to their triathlon performance.

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Data shows there is an optimal amount of caffiene to use

Is it “Legal”?
Caffeine’s widespread use and popularity have caused some people to view the substance as a drug. In January 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed caffeine from its restricted-substances list.  However, the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA currently list caffeine as a restricted drug. Urinary levels up to a concentration of 12 mg/liter are acceptable, representing casual use. Approximately 1000mg of caffeine (about 8 cups of coffee) would be required to exceed the current IOC limit, but it is very important to note that people, particularly athletes, can metabolize caffeine at very different rates. Differences in metabolism, medications, and certain diseases may significantly alter the rate in which caffeine is cleared from the body.  Becoming very familiar with your own metabolic rate of caffeine is highly recommended.

Possible Side Effects
Although caffeine does not appear to significantly alter water balance or body temperature during exercise, dehydration is a potential concern because caffeine is a mild diuretic. It can also cause elevated blood pressure.  Some athletes may also experience abdominal cramps and diarrhea related to the large intestine contractions caused by caffeine. The combination of dehydration and cramping can have particularly detrimental effects on performance.  Again, you should become very familiar with your own metabolic rate of caffeine.

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Tips for Use
Should you choose to use caffeine, here are a few tips to maximize the benefits:

  • Ingest caffeine about 3 - 4 hours before your competition. Although blood levels of caffeine peak much sooner, the maximum caffeine effect on fat stores appears to occur several hours after peak blood levels.
  • Consider decreasing or abstaining from caffeine for 3 - 4 days prior to competition. This allows for tolerance to caffeine to decrease and helps ensure a maximum effect.  (However, if you’re like me, I’m used to caffeine daily and going 3-4 days without it would likely do more harm than good.  Particularly for those people around me).
  • Important: you should practice using caffeine under a variety of training conditions. Nothing should ever be new on race day.

Whether you’re a casual caffeine drinker or, like me, caffeine is the foundation of your food pyramid – chances are, you can benefit from its effects in your training.  As with any substance, you must individually decide whether or not it is appropriate given your current training regimen – both in competitions and day-to-day.
As for me, 26 years later, I can still be seen drinking a 20 oz. bottle of Diet Coke while I roam the start line of a marathon.  Hey, like I said, some habits are sacred.

Marcia holds a Master of Applied Exercise Science degree from Concordia University, Chicago.  She is also an ACE certified Health Coach as well as a Certified Sports Nutritionist through the International Society of Sports Nutrition.  As a marathon runnerX45, Hood-to-Coast captain, Ironman triathlete, Tough Mudder and Crossfit Masters competitor, Marcia knows first-hand the importance of proper nutrition in endurance sports.


Desbrow, B., Biddulph, C., Devlin, B., Grant, G. D., Aoopkumer-Dukie, S., & Leveritt, M. D. (2012). The effects of different doses of caffeine on endurance cycling time trial performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(2), 115-120.

Desbrow, B., & Leveritt, M. (2007). Well-Trained Endurance Athletes' Knowledge, Insight, and Experience of Caffeine Use. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 17, 328-339.

Goldstein, E. R., Ziegenfuss, T., Kalman, D., Kreider, R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C.,& Antonio, J. (2010).  International society of sports nutrition position stand: Caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 5.

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