Some people already do it and but everyone has at least seen it, the guy with his shaker mixing up his pre-workout before they hit the gym. We have talked about the basics of what caffeine does inside our body, but can we use it to increase our performance.
Given that we have three different energy systems, we will have to explore the effects on all three if we really want to understand how it can improve our performance.
Our oxidative pathway is our aerobic pathway, or the ability to produce energy from the air we breathe.
One of the most popular theories about caffeine and aerobic activity is that caffeine ingestion can work as a thermogenic and aid in the glycogenesis and fat utilization. There have been numerous experiments but in many cases they have come up fairly inconclusive. The basic theory is that caffeine aids in breaking down glycogen stores, thus aiding in providing energy and in burning fat. Aerobic activity is known to increase fat utilization, the current theory is that caffeine consumption increases this activity.
The studies that have have been conducted have revealed different results, but do show that there may be a short term advantage to consuming caffeine in moderate doses (3-6mg per gram of body weight). The biggest limiting factor is that the effects of caffeine on this type of performance is strongest when you have abstained from caffeine for at least 7 days, as this would give you best chance of optimizing the thermogenic effect. Continuous caffeine usage tends to deteriorate the effect as the body begins to adapt to the caffeine intake.
This is our ability to utilize the sugars in our body as an energy source. This is how we generate energy when we are sprinting or working at a pace that we can no longer hold a conversation at. This is when we switch from being aerobic to anaerobic.
The effects of caffeine, as we increase out intensity level and leave the aerobic domain and cross over into the anaerobic, start to take on a little different appeal. Caffeine may have some mild effect on aerobic activity, but the problem with taking caffeine when we approach these higher intensity levels, is that it only causes our increased heart rate and blood pressure to push even further. In many cases much harder than it is needed or recommended. Caffeine increases out adrenaline response, and in the case of high intensity activity such as sprinting, or even during a WOD such as Fran, the last thing that we need is for our heart rate and breathing to go up higher.
This is where we start working towards pure and simple strength and power. We generally cannot hold this effort for more than about 8-10 seconds. High power but very quick duration.
This is where caffeine gets interesting. In all the studies that I have found and read, there was one very promising effect from caffeine. Caffeine, because of its effect on cortisol and epinephrine has been shown to increased peak force production and rate of force development. This is essentially our ability to be explosive. This lends itself to the increased Central Nervous System activation, improved muscle fiber excitation thresholds. This is why you see people taking pre-workouts before heading to the gym to lift and not seeing people taking a pre-workout before heading out to the track.
Where people get in trouble at with caffeine, is what they use as their source. In this case, more is not always better. We also have to look at the other ingredients that we are getting dealt. As mentioned before, studies point to the best success at caffeine levels of 3-6mg per gram of body weight. When we have ingredients such as caffeine, guarana, taurine, ginseng and others, not only are we exceeding this but also getting a bunch of other ingredients that we may not want. In many cases, our standard pre-workout while have different varieties of caffeine, a variety of creatine, and an assortment of various amino acids, along with the many sugars, fillers and other chemicals. My recommendation is and always will be to go with the purist source. Don’t rely on a company attempting to sell you a product to tell you what you do or don’t need. In the days before mass marketed pre-workouts, if you needed a boost for a workout you either ate some simple carbs 30 minutes before your work out, or had some coffee.
If athletes felt like they needed a boost in order to work out it was likely because they were lacking in rest and recovery. Even in the serious lifting days of guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, if he wasn’t lifting or eating he was sleeping or napping. In today’s culture, people don’t take the time to adequately eat and recovery, so we lean towards trying to rely on supplements to make up for these shortfalls. Truth be said, that can be an entirely different and long conversation.
Caffeine, short answer, can help your performance on a short term basis. Prolonged use starts to mitigate the effect. It can potentially help on long endurance events or when it comes to lifting, but I would stay far away from it when it comes to many types of sprint workouts and most Crossfit WODs. In the end though, a lot of the benefits of caffeine end up being as much mental as it is physical
Continue by reading Hey Joe, What do you know (Part 3: The Bad News),
and in case you missed it Part 1: The Basics
For Further Reading