Another simple performance enhancer - how are you doing yours?

Hi everyone,

 I hope you all enjoyed the last blog post on Passive Heat Maintenance (PHM). Although we are currently experiencing quite hot conditions here in Brisbane (Australia), this concept is very relevant to those who train and compete in cooler climates. I see the application of PHM to be a very simple intervention that is low cost and has great performance gains. So it is with this theme of simple performance enhancement interventions, that we discuss caffeine and how this can enhance performance. I thought I would take this opportunity to have a special guest blogger Craig Pickering (@craig100m) who has written extensively around the use of caffeine as an ergogenic aid.

@craig100m Craig Pickering

Craig is a dual Olympian competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics (100m and 4 x 100m relay) and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games (bobsleigh). After retiring from professional sport, he took the position of Head of Sports Science at DNAFit, a genetic testing company. Alongside his work, he is also studying for a Professional Doctorate at the University of Central Lancashire, where his interest is in exploring the utility of genetic information in elite sport, with a secondary interest in caffeine. I met Craig around 2005 when he was training for the 100m out of Bath University. During that time I was working for Bath Rugby Union (2004-10) as a strength and conditioning coach. Before I hand this over to Craig, make sure you give him a follow on twitter (@craig100m) as he is always sharing fantastic reviews and interesting insights into the world of athletic performance enhancement. At this point I will let Craig take centre stage…

Caffeine is the world’s most well used performance enhancing drug. This is true not just for athletes of which ~75% use caffeine as a means to enhance performance with the general public consuming approximately 2.2 billion cups of coffee (the most common caffeine delivery system) daily across the world.

Caffeine has been shown to have a number of beneficial effects. Regular exposure to caffeine appears to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease (but not for everyone – we’ll come to this later), and is associated with other benefits, such as improved cognitive function and mood. From a sporting perspective, caffeine has reliably and consistently been shown to enhance performance in endurance, team, and repeated effort sports and exercises. It’s effects on anaerobic performance are less clear, although it is very rare that caffeine is shown to have a harmful effect on performance of any type (again, more on this later). So, for most people, experimenting with pre-exercise caffeine supplementation appears worthwhile.

So how much caffeine should you take? The research typically shows that, for most people, the optimal ergogenic effects are seen at between 3-6mg/kg, with no additional performance enhancement above this dose; doses below 3mg/kg can still be ergogenic, but it’s not clear if this is to the same extent. Most people consume it around 60 minutes before performance. You can get your caffeine from a variety of methods. The most common, and most well studied, are caffeine capsule (e.g. No Doz), or caffeinated drinks (e.g. coffee), but you can also get caffeinated gels, bars, and gum (the caffeine from gum is absorbed via the mouth, and so peaks in the blood quicker; usually within 20 minutes).

Interesting facts about different caffeine ingestion methods & concentrations


Serving Size

Caffeine (mg)

Starbucks Coffee, Blonde Roast

venti - 590ml


Nespresso capsule—except Kazaar 

1 capsule (30ml)


Dunkin' Donuts Coffee

medium - 414ml


Pepsi Zero Sugar



Monster Energy



Red Bull




1 caplet or tablet


Caffeine powder

1/16 or 1/32 tsp.



Did you know... 2 cups of tea = 1 cup of coffee

There are 20mg of caffeine in your average 100g of brewed tea compared to 40mg in the same amount of black filter coffee. But the type of tea, as well as the brewing time makes a difference (see pic below).

Caffeine content of tea according to brew time

You might have heard that if you regularly consume caffeine, then you lose the benefits of it. There’s a grain of truth to this, but, like anything, context is important. In people who regularly consume caffeine, it appears that they lose the intensity of ergogenic effects – i.e. caffeine will still improve their performance, but just to a lesser extent. This is true unless they take a higher dose pre-performance. So, if I regularly consume 200mg of caffeine per day (around 3 cups of coffee), then I most likely need to consume closer to 300mg pre-competition if I want to maximize caffeine’s performance benefits.

 You might have also heard that you need to stop taking caffeine for a few days before competition in order to re-sensitize yourself to it. Again, this has been shown through research to be false; there appears to be no advantage from pre-competition caffeine abstinence, and there might even be some downsides, as the side-effects from caffeine withdrawal can be quite nasty.

Remember earlier that I mentioned that caffeine is rarely harmful to performance. Well, there are some caveats to that. Higher doses of caffeine can induce feelings of anxiety, which could well harm performance, particularly if the athlete is competing at a major competition. It can also cause feelings of nausea, which, as you can imagine, doesn’t help performance. As far as I am aware, there is one study, that shows that people with one version of one gene, find that caffeine actually makes their performance worse, but this result has yet to be replicated. In addition, in caffeine studies that report individual results, there are often subjects who performed worse when given caffeine – this could mean that caffeine harms their performance, or perhaps they just need a different caffeine dose in order to realise its benefits. In addition, people with the same version of this gene find that regular intakes of higher doses of caffeine – more than 3 cups of coffee per day – increases their risk of a heart attack, hypertension, and type-II diabetes. This gene has the catchy name of CYP1A2, and it creates an enzyme which is responsible for metabolizing caffeine. In those with the CC version of this gene, caffeine appears to hang around for much longer, which is why it is thought to negatively impact health.

Putting all this together, you can see that it’s very difficult for me to tell you how much caffeine to take, because there is no one-size fits all solution. Most people find that a caffeine dose somewhere between 3- and 6-mg/kg, taken around 60 minutes prior to performance, is optimal. Some people need a bit less caffeine than this, some people need a bit more. Some people find it best to take it further away from performance (such as 90 minutes), some people like to take it a bit closer (30 minutes). Some people prefer it in liquid form, some people prefer it as a tablet. Remember, what you do on any given day can also impact how much caffeine you should take; if you’re more anxious than usual pre-competition, maybe less caffeine would be better. If you’ve just eaten a big meal, you might need a bit more, as food will slow the gastric absorption of caffeine. If you regularly consume caffeine, you’ll likely need more caffeine than someone who isn’t a regular user.

All of the above leads me to a single, simple piece of advice – practice your caffeine strategy. Experiment with different doses, different timings, and different methods (liquid, solids, gums, gels). Monitor how you respond to each; does one form affect you more than the other, or cause negative side-effects? Constantly refine your strategy based on how much caffeine you’re regularly consuming. Remember that the caffeine content of drinks can vary, not just from brand to brand, but also within the same brand on different occasions; the amount of caffeine in a coffee from your local coffee shop will vary each time you have it, so perhaps a more standardized caffeine dose – such as a capsule – is worth pursuing, although again there will be a small variation within each cap.

I wish there was a single best answer, a one-size fits-all solution to caffeine supplementation in sport. But there isn’t, it depends on the person, their own unique make-up, and their individual history. Experiment, find what works for you, and constantly refine it.

Therefore, after reviewing the available literature, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Caffeine is more powerful when consumed in an anhydrous state (capsule/tablet, powder), as compared to coffee.
  • The majority of research has utilized a protocol where caffeine is ingested 60 min prior to performance to ensure optimal absorption; however, it has also been shown that caffeine can enhance performance when consumed 15-30 min prior to exercise.
  • Caffeine is effective for enhancing various types of performance when consumed in low-to-moderate doses (~3-6 mg/kg); moreover, there is no further benefit when consumed at higher dosages (≥ 9 mg/kg).
  • During periods of sleep deprivation, caffeine can act to enhance alertness and vigilance, which has been shown to be an effective aid for special operations military personnel, as well as athletes during times of exhaustive exercise that requires sustained focus.
  • Caffeine is an effective ergogenic aid for sustained maximal endurance activity, and has also been shown to be very effective for enhancing time trial performance.
  • Recently, it has been demonstrated that caffeine can enhance, not inhibit, glycogen resynthesis during the recovery phase of exercise.
  • Caffeine is beneficial for high-intensity exercise of prolonged duration (including team sports such as soccer, field hockey, rowing, etc.), but the enhancement in performance is specific to conditioned athletes.
  • The literature is inconsistent when applied to strength and power activities or sports. It is not clear whether the discrepancies in results are due to differences in training protocols, training or fitness level of the subjects, etc. Nonetheless, more studies are needed to establish the effects of caffeine vis a vis strength-power sports.

Thanks again to @craig100m for his time. Tune in next week for another performance enhancer that is one of my passions that you may not know about



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