For decades, endurance athletes have relied on caffeine as a performance aid. They claimed that a pre-workout cup of coffee helped them to push themselves harder and for longer periods of time.
And along the way, science has backed up that belief:
- In 1979, scientists found that caffeine helped cyclists improve their performance by 7% during a 2 hour workout.
- In 1991, cyclists dosed with 9mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight were able to increase their endurance by 51%
- In 1995, cyclists performing high intensity circuits were able to improve their endurance by 29% with a dose of 5.5mg of caffeine per kg of body mass.
Pretty good, right? The only problem is that no one really knew why caffeine improved athletic performance…until now.
Researcher (and cycling geek) Dr. Robert Motl has spent the last 7 years considering the relationship between physical activity and caffeine. Today, he has a much better understanding of why that cuppa Joe he used to consume before distance training and competing enhanced his cycling ability.
- Early in his research, he became aware that “caffeine works on the adenosine neuromodulatory system in the brain and spinal cord, and this system is heavily involved in nociception and pain processing.”
- Since Motl knew caffeine blocks adenosine from working, he speculated that it could reduce pain.
- A number of studies by Dr. Motl support that conclusion, including investigations considering such variables as exercise intensity, dose of caffeine, anxiety sensitivity and gender.
The good doctors latest study “looks at the effects of caffeine on muscle pain during high-intensity exercise as a function of habitual caffeine use,” he said. “No one has examined that before”.
And what did they find?
- Caffeine reduces pain during exercise.
- Less pain means you can work harder.
- Less pain means you can work longer.
The study’s 25 participants were fit, college-aged males divided into two distinct groups:
- Subjects whose everyday caffeine consumption was extremely low to non-existent,
- And those with an average caffeine intake of about 400 milligrams a day, the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee.
After testing their baseline aerobic fitness, Dr. Motl tortured his subjects with two monitored high-intensity, 30-minute exercise sessions.
- An hour prior to each session, cyclists – who had been instructed not to consume caffeine during the prior 24-hour period – were given a pill.
- On one occasion, it contained a dose of caffeine measuring 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (equivalent to two to three cups of coffee); the other time, they received a placebo.
- During both exercise periods, subjects’ perceptions of quadriceps muscle pain was recorded at regular intervals, along with data on oxygen consumption, heart rate and work rate.
Obviously the most important result was that caffeine reduced the pain of intense physical activity. But Dr. Motl also found that when it came to the reduction of pain, “caffeine tolerance doesn’t matter”. Caffeine-junkies and the herbal tea drinkers received the same pain reducing benefit from their little caffeine pill.
So, what now?
Dr. Motl wants to see what effect caffeine’s pain-reducing abilities has on sport performance.
“We’ve shown that caffeine reduces pain reliably, consistently during cycling, across different intensities, across different people, different characteristics. But does that reduction in pain translate into an improvement in sport performance?”
Interesting question for sure, but I am way to impatient to wait for science to catch up to real life. If you’re like me, check out this list of caffeine based beverages and let’s get physical.
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