Caffeine and Exercise Performance

Caffeine may be the most widely used stimulant in the world. It is found in a variety of
plants, dietary sources (including coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa, and colas), and non-
prescription medications. The average caffeine consumption in the USA is approximately 2
cups of coffee per day (200 mg); 10% of the population ingests more than 1000 mg per day.
Caffeine is a socially acceptable, legal drug consumed by all groups in society.
Caffeine is often referred to as a nutritional ergogenic aid, but it has no nutritional value.
Ingested caffeine is quickly absorbed from the stomach and peaks in the blood in 1-2 hours.
Caffeine has the potential to affect all systems of the body, as it is absorbed by most tissue.
The remaining caffeine is broken down in the liver and byproducts are excreted in urine.
Laboratory studies from the 1970’s suggested that caffeine enhanced endurance
performance by increasing the release of adrenaline into the blood stimulating the release of
free fatty acids from fat tissue and/or skeletal muscle. The working muscles use this extra fat
early in exercise, reducing the need to use muscle carbohydrate (glycogen). The “sparing”
of muscle glycogen made more available later in exercise to delay fatigue.
In the 1980’s, many studies found that caffeine did not alter exercise metabolism, and
implied that it had no ergogenic effect, without actually measuring performance. A few
reports did examine caffeine and performance during endurance exercise and generally
found no ergogenic effect. By the end of the decade, it was suggested that caffeine did not
alter metabolism during endurance exercise and may not be ergogenic.
Recent work reported that ingestion of 3-9 mg of caffeine per kilogram (kg) of body weight
one hour prior to exercise increased endurance running and cycling performance in the
laboratory. To put this into perspective, 3 mg per kg body weight equals approximately one
mug or 2 regular size cups of drip-percolated coffee; and 9 mg/kg = approximately 3 mugs
of 5-6 regular size cups of coffee. These studies employed well-trained, elite or serious,
recreational athletes. Studies with untrained individuals cannot be performed due to their
inability to reliably exercise to exhaustion.
The mechanism to explain these endurance improvements is unclear. Muscle glycogen is
spared early during submaximal exercise following caffeine ingestion (5-9 mg/kg). It is
unknown whether glycogen sparing occurs as a result of caffeine’s ability to increase fat
availability for skeletal muscle use. Furthermore, there is no evidence supporting a
metabolic component for enhancing performance at a low caffeine dose (3 mg/kg).
Therefore, it appears that alterations in muscle metabolism alone cannot fully explain the
ergogenic effect of caffeine during endurance exercise.
Research suggests that caffeine ingestion improves performance during short-term exercise
lasting approximately 5 minutes at 90 to 100 percent of maximal oxygen uptake in the
laboratory. This exercise intensity requires maximal provision of energy from both aerobic
(oxygen requiring) and anaerobic (non-oxygen) sources. It is unknown if this finding applies
to race situations. The reasons for the performance improvement may be a direct positive
effect of caffeine on muscle anaerobic energy provision and contraction or a central nervous
component related to the sensation of effort. Caffeine ingestion does not appear to improve
sprint performance, but additional well-controlled laboratory and field studies are required to
confirm this conclusion. Sprinting is defined as exercise that can be maintained from a few
seconds to 90 seconds where most of the required energy is derived from anaerobic


Caffeine Dose.
Caffeine is a “controlled or restricted substance” as defined by the
International Olympic Committee (IOC). Athletes are allowed up to 12 ug caffeine per
milliliter of urine before it is considered illegal. The acceptable limit in sports sanctioned by
the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the U.S. is 15 ug/ml urine. These high
urinary limits are to allow athletes to consume normal amounts of caffeine prior to
competition. A large amount of caffeine can be ingested before reaching the “illegal” limit.
For example, if a 70 kg person rapidly drank about 3-4 mugs, or 5-6 regular size cups of
drip-percolated coffee (~9 mg/kg bw) one hour before exercise, exercised for 1-1.5 hours
and then gave a urine sample, the urinary caffeine level would only approach the limit (12
ug/ml). The odds of reaching the limit through normal caffeine ingestion are low, except
where smaller volumes of coffee with very high caffeine concentrations are consumed.
Therefore, an illegal urinary caffeine level makes it highly probable that the athlete
deliberately took supplementary caffeine tablets or suppositories in an attempt to improve
The optimal dose for maximizing the chance that exercise performance will be enhanced is
~3 – 6 mg/kg, where side effects are minimized and urine levels are legal. The side effects
of caffeine ingestion include anxiety, jitters, inability to focus, gastrointestinal unrest,
insomnia, irritability, and, with higher doses, the risk of heart arrhythmias and mild
hallucinations. While the side effects associated with doses of up to 9 mg/kg do not appear
to be dangerous, they can be disconcerting if present prior to a competition and may impair
performance. Ingestion of higher doses of caffeine (10-15 mg/kg) is not recommended as
the side effects worsen. It should also be noted that most studies have used pure caffeine
rather than a caffeinated beverage or food. Thus, it is not certain that consuming the
“equivalent dose of caffeine” as coffee, for example, will have the same result.

Diuretic Effect of Caffeine.
Coffee and/or caffeine are often reported to be diuretics,
suggesting that ingestion of large quantities could lead to poor hydration status prior to and
during exercise.
However, the available literature does not support immediate diuretic effect as body core
temperature, sweat loss, plasma volume and urine volume were unchanged during exercise
following caffeine ingestion.
Ethical Considerations. It is easy for endurance athletes to improve performance “legally”
with caffeine, as ergogenic effects have been reported with as little as 3 mg/kg body weight
(bw). Even ingesting a moderate caffeine dose (5-6 mg/kg) is permissible. It has been
suggested that caffeine should be banned prior to endurance competitions, requiring the
athletes to abstain from caffeine approx. 48-72 hours before competition. This limitation
would ensure that no athlete had an unfair advantage on race day, but would not prevent
caffeine use in training. However, even if caffeine is banned in the future, what practice
should athletes follow at present? For elite athletes, it is currently acceptable and
reasonable to have their normal dietary coffee. However, if they deliberately take pure
caffeine to gain an advantage on competitors, it is clearly unethical and is considered
An equally important issue is the use of caffeine by the average active teenager or adult.
Caffeine’s widespread use was demonstrated in a recent survey by the Canadian Centre for
Drug Free Sport. The survey found that 27% of Canadian youths (11-18 years old) had used
a caffeine-containing substance in the previous year for the specific purpose of enhancing
athletic performance. Does caffeine act as a “gateway” drug for the young who then use
dangerous substances? For the average, active teenager or adult who is exercising with the
goals of enjoyment and self-improvement, using caffeine defeats these purposes. Proper
training and nutritional habits are more sensible and productive approaches.


Caffeine ingestion (3-9 mg/kg bw) prior to exercise increases performance during prolonged
endurance exercise and short-term intense exercise lasting approx. 5 minutes in the
laboratory. These results are generally reported in well-trained elite or recreational athletes,
but field studies are required to test caffeine’s ergogenic potency in the athletic world.
Caffeine does not appear to enhance performance during sprinting lasting less than 90
seconds, although research in this area is lacking. The mechanisms for improved endurance
have not been clearly established. Muscle glycogen sparing occurs early during endurance
exercise following caffeine ingestion but it is unclear whether this is due to increased fat
mobilization and use by the muscle. The positive effect of caffeine during exercise lasting
approx. 5 minutes is not related to the sparing of muscle glycogen. The ergogenic effects of
caffeine are present with urinary caffeine levels that are well below the IOC allowable limit
(12 ug/ml). This raises ethical issues regarding caffeine use in athletics. Should the practice
be condoned, as it is legal, or should it be discouraged, as it promotes the “doping mentality”
and may lead to more serious abuse? One solution would be to add caffeine to the list of
banned substances, thereby requiring athletes to abstain from caffeine ingestion 48-72
hours prior to competition and discouraging its use as a doping agent to increase
performance in the average population.
Written for the American College of Sports Medicine by
Lawrence L. Spriet, Ph.D., FACSM (Chair) and Terry E. Graham, Ph.D., FACSM.

Current Comments are official statements by the American College of Sports Medicine concerning topics of interest to the public at large. Street Address: 401 W. Michigan St. • Indianapolis, IN 46202-3233 USA Mailing Address: P.O. Box 1440 • Indianapolis, IN 46206-1440 USA Telephone: (317) 637-9200 • FAX: (317) 634-7817


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