Can coffee boost performance?

by Graeme Hilditch

Does Caffeine boost your athletic performance?

Coffee is one drink that health experts can never seem to agree on.

One group of experts demonises it as highly toxic and advises us to steer well clear, yet another group of experts believe that in moderation it is actually beneficial for our health and can guard against disease and certain types of cancer.

The use of coffee in sport to help boost performance is another hotly debated issue and one that is of particular interest to sportsmen and women wanting to gain a competitive edge. One myth that needs to be dispelled is that it is not the coffee itself that is allegedly responsible for improved performance, but the caffeine contained within it.

Caffeine is the world’s most widely used drug and an effective stimulant, proven to make us feel more alert and wide awake.

The question is – does it help to enhance athletic performance? Well, the answer is yes, it does, but it is questionable whether there is enough caffeine in a single cup of coffee to be of much benefit.

What's the evidence?

Studies on the ergogenic effects of caffeine are ongoing but leading sports nutrition experts Louise Deakin and Louise Burke suggest that consuming a dose of at least 5mg of caffeine per kg of body weight produces an improvement in performance for exercise lasting more than 60 minutes.

So, if you take the example of 70kg (154lb) athlete, an intake of 350mg of caffeine before exercise will produce a noticeable improvement in athletic performance.

The only trouble with using coffee as your source of caffeine is its potential to play havoc with your insides. A strongly brewed mug of coffee contains around 100mg of caffeine, meaning that our athlete would have to drink about 3–4 cups of coffee an hour before exercise to get any benefit.

Gastric Irritant

Coffee is a gastric irritant at the best of times and that much coffee in a relatively short period of time is enough to cause some pretty uncomfortable abdominal cramps and a nasty episode of the runs!

So, although in principle coffee could help enhance performance, in practise it can make life pretty uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing if you drink excessive amounts before a race.

If you want to use caffeine to enhance your performance, then caffeine tablets are probably a safer bet, but it is advisable to check this with your GP first.

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