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        Getting a Caffeine Kick

Written by Jennifer Hutchison. Published Wednesday, April 16, 2008 on Ironman.com


I am an addict. Caffeine is my drug of choice. I am one of those people who roll out of bed stumble half awake into the kitchen...... praying the coffee fairy (aka my husband) has left a fresh batch of java. I do enjoy the flavor of my morning coffee but honestly, it's the caffeine - I NEED it to wake up. Like 90% of Americans, I am one who must have some form of caffeine every day. Not only do I enjoy the lift caffeine provides in the wee hours before a morning workout, I am also an athlete who believes caffeine before and during my races provides a mental and physical boost to help me race my best.

As a sports dietitian, I am keenly aware of the potential for abuse and negative effects of using this internationally accepted pharmacological agent. I also am very familiar with the abundance of scientific literature supporting the use of caffeine as a viable ergogenic aid (performance enhancing substance). This month I thought I would share a review on this naturally occurring compound and offer suggestions and words of caution on its use.

Let’s face it … its a drug! Caffeine is a drug from the methyl xanthine category. It is a naturally occurring compound that is found in the leaves, nuts and seeds of over 60 different plants across the globe. This stimulant is the most socially acceptable and widely used drug in the world.

According to the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), prior to 1997, caffeine was primarily added to sodas. CSPI thanks a little Austrian import called Red Bull (and the blind eye of the FDA) for opening the floodgates to US food and beverage markets. The “energy” drink industry (and subsequent energy food category…..ex: Snickers Charged) has exploded with new highly charged caffeine containing drinks sold to the masses. Since there are no labeling standards for caffeine, consumers have no idea how much they are consuming and this can be problematic for caffeine sensitive athletes.

The fact of the matter is caffeine is a performance enhancer for many athletes. Caffeine’s ergogenic claim to fame is being able to help reduce times in endurance events, time trials as well as allow athletes to train harder and longer. Clinically, caffeine has been shown to be an effective performance enhancement substance and was previously banned by the International Olympic Committee. Because of caffeine’s widespread use and the excessive amount needed to produce a positive drug test it was removed from the IOC list of banned substances in early 2004.

How does caffeine help improve performance? It was thought that caffeine’s primary mode of action was its glycogen sparing effect by releasing free fatty acids into the blood stream to be used as fuel. Because of the abundance of fat stores (even in the leanest of athletes), this mode of action sounded the best. Sports scientist have debunked the glycogen sparing theory noting the sparing effect is significant only in the first 30 minutes of activity. So bottom line is caffeine is not the fat burning magic pill it once thought it was.

The next mode of action was believed to be related to caffeine’s ability to directly impact muscles fibers. This system is quite complex but basically it is saying caffeine allows muscle fibers to work harder producing more force and ultimately power. This makes sense and some athletes do say they have more productive sessions when caffeine is in there system.

The one mode of action that the sports science community agrees on is caffeine’s ability to stimulate the brain (central nervous system), which, in turn, can alter the perception of work or level of fatigue. Caffeine, for many, makes a workout or given effort “feel” easier thus allowing athletes the opportunity to push a bit harder.

Over the years, athletes have been warned that caffeine containing foods and beverages had a diuretic effect which could negatively impact performance. Excessive caffeine intake (> 475 mg) in the hours before or after a training bout may slightly increase urine output. However according to a study done by Lawrence Armstrong, caffeine when used in moderation does not promote dehydration.

Tips for responsible use of caffeine: • Who should avoid caffeine? Children, older adults and folks with history of high blood pressure or cardiac problems to name a few. Also, individuals with history of migraine headaches, low bone density, irritable bowel syndrome or other gastric issues. Caffeine use can cause nausea, jitteriness, heart palpitations and sleep problems in sensitive individuals. Habitual users of larger daily doses of caffeine are at risk for high blood pressure and lower bone density.

• Use in moderation. A moderate dose of caffeine is considered 3 to 6 mg per kilogram body weight or less than 300-400 mg per day.

• Understand that the caffeine content can vary greatly from coffee bean to energy drinks to sports gels. There are no regulations that require manufacturers to list how much caffeine is in a product. Do some investigation. Look for the words: energy, extreme, invigorating, herbal lift, as these are a small sampling of the buzz words of the potential caffeine containing products. Check the ingredient label for any of the following: Coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa, kola nut, guarana, yerba mate. A very entertaining and informative website with a large database of caffeine containing drinks can be found at www.energyfiend.com or check out the table at the end of this article.

• Limit caffeine use to morning or very early afternoon workouts. Caffeine dose peaks about 45 minutes after its consumed and has a half life ( the amount of time the initial dose is metabolized by half) of 4 to 6 hours. This means a 16 oz cup of coffee (~ 200 mg caffeine) consumed at 4 PM would leave ~ 100mg floating around in the system up to 10PM. This is the time when many weary triathletes are trying to wind down and go to sleep. Technically speaking, that 200 mg dose would not be completing cleared from you body until ~4AM.

• If experimenting with caffeine, try it in training. Keep notes in your training log of what, when and how much you are taking. Try the plan out in a lower priority race to see if you feel it helps.

• Specific protocols for caffeine use during endurance events do not exist because caffeine tolerance and metabolism varies so much between individuals. Through the trial and error process, an athlete must find the right balance of this stimulant. Many sports nutrition sources cite using 3 mg caffeine per pound (or 6 mg per kg) about 1 hour before the event to achieve the ergogenic boost. There have been some studies that have suggested benefits from smaller more frequent doses of 1 to 3 mg per kg body weight. Athletes should always strive for the lowest dose possible.

• During a race: Best to use smaller doses more frequently or wait until you feel you need the boost (ex: second lap of the bike or run) The best source, in my opinion, is using the caffeinated gels such as PowerGel (Tangerine & Double Expresso provide 50 mg caffeine per pack where as the other ones provide 25 mg) or even diluted cola.

• Prior to a race: Habitual caffeine users may benefit from cutting back on caffeine as little as 4 days out from the target event. I would advise tapering caffeine intake 7 to 10 days out from a key race as this will diminish any withdraw symptoms ( e.g. headaches) while you are trying to get your body and mind ready to race.

• Post race: Avoid rehydrating with caffeine containing drinks especially for finishes occurring in the late afternoon or evening. You don’t want the caffeine buzz to interfere with the much needed recovery sleep post race!

There is a line between responsible use and abuse of caffeine. The axiom if a little is good more is better is the furthest thing from the truth with this substance. Caffeine use is not for everyone. Bottom line is individuals vary greatly in the ability to tolerate and metabolize caffeine. This is why some people can drink a cup of coffee after dinner and have no difficulty sleeping where as others (myself included) are tossing and turning in bed after eating coffee ice cream!

The key is getting to know your tolerance level and learn when enough is enough!

Caffeine Content of Select Items- Approx. amounts
Brewed coffee (8oz) 100 mg
Green & Black tea ( 8oz) 50 mg
Cola ( 12 oz) 30-50 mg
SoBe No Fear ( 16oz) 174 mg
Red Bull ( 8.3oz) 80 mg
Propel Invigorating Water ( 20 oz) 50 mg
PowerGel ( 41 gm pack)- chocolate 25 mg
PowerGel ( 41 gm) double expresso, tangerine 50 mg
Jolt Gum- 1 stick 60 mg
Caffeine tablet ( NoDoz, Vivarin) 200 mg
Snickers Charged Bar 60 mg

 
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