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  • Writer's picture Sammii Koch

Unleash Your Athletic Potential with Caffeine: Everything You Need to Know

Caffeine is no stranger to most of us – it's the trusted companion that often helps kick start our mornings, with a cup of coffee being a daily ritual for countless people worldwide. But what you might not know is that caffeine isn't just your daily pick-me-up; when used correctly, it could also be your secret weapon in the world of sports and athletic performance.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into the science behind caffeine and its incredible ability to elevate your athletic abilities.

The Science Behind Caffeine's Performance Boost

For years, scientists have been exploring the link between caffeine and athletic performance. While we know caffeine has well-documented effects on the central nervous system, it does more than just make exercise feel easier and improve motor unit recruitment.

Caffeine is widely recognized as an ergogenic aid, benefiting both endurance and power-based activities. Caffeine is found in various everyday foods and drinks, and comes from sources like nuts, seeds, and leaves.

The majority of caffeine's benefits come from its interactions with adenosine receptors in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. These interactions reduce the perception of effort during exercise, allowing athletes to push harder. Additionally, caffeine may also provide performance benefits by increasing calcium release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, leading to improved muscle contractions and benefiting activities like lifting, sprinting, and jumping. Preservation of muscle glycogen via increased fat oxidation (increased breakdown and use of fats for fuel), may also be a factor. A 2020 systematic review of the literature concluded that there is a dose–response effect of caffeine on the rate of fat oxidation, and that more than 3 mg/kg is necessary to induce an effect of caffeine on fat oxidation during submaximal intensity performed after a fasting period. It is important to note that the fat oxidation was higher in sedentary or untrained individuals than in well-trained and recreational athletes.

Caffeine can also enhance cognitive performance, such as attention, vigilance, alertness and reaction time. This can be helpful in many sports, particularly team sports, tactical races and when the gun goes off in sprints.

Breaking the Myth: Caffeine for Strength and Power

It's a common belief that caffeine is only beneficial for endurance athletes. However, recent studies suggest otherwise. While smaller doses of caffeine can help endurance athletes, higher doses, around 5-6 mg per kilogram of body weight, can also enhance one-rep max performance and overall power. But be cautious when experimenting with higher doses, especially if you're not used to them.

The Dosage Dilemma

Determining the right caffeine dosage for peak performance can be a bit tricky.

Research results vary, and everyone responds differently.

Early recommendations advised that a range of 3-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight was ideal for boosting performance, however, more recent studies are finding that 1-3 mg/kg may be all that’s needed.

For a 60kg athlete, this equates to a potential caffeine range of anywhere between 60mg and 360mg.

Your habitual caffeine intake and tolerance can impact the amount that is best for you when it comes to enhancing performance.

Timing matters too, with consumption recommended 30-60 minutes before your training session or event. However, for quicker absorption forms like caffeinated gum, 15-30 minutes may suffice. Finding your perfect dose while minimising side effects like a racing heart, shaky hands, upset stomach, and headaches is crucial.

Caffeine Tolerance: A Complex Issue

Caffeine tolerance is a bit complex. Consensus suggests that habitual high caffeine intake may reduce its performance benefits. However, consuming slightly more caffeine than usual might help counter this effect. Going significantly above your usual intake may not offer additional improvements. The idea of increasing your sensitivity by withdrawing from caffeine intake in the days/weeks before competition may make sense in theory, but there isn't consistent evidence to support it - and the withdrawal side effects (headaches, fatigue, irritability, muscle pain, sleep disturbances, nausea) may have a deleterious effect on athletes in the lead up to their competition anyway. Ideally, your regular caffeine intake should be below 3mg/kg/day to minimise issues on competition day.

Beyond Coffee: Choosing the right product for the job

Coffee is obviously the most popular choice for the everyday caffeine consumer.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recently published it’s position stand on coffee and sports performance, summarising the following conclusions:

  • Coffee is a complex beverage with many factors influencing its composition, including serving size, bean type, and brewing method.

  • Coffee and its various compounds, including caffeine, have a range of effects on the body, impacting exercise performance, cognition, metabolism, and more.

  • The effects of coffee depend on factors like dosage, timing, habituation (to coffee or caffeine), genetics, gut microbiota, gender, and training status.

  • Coffee generally improves performance in activities spanning reaction time, brief power exercises, and aerobic exercises, but not in all cases.

  • The recommended dosage for optimal performance enhancement is typically 2 to 4 cups of hot brewed or instant coffee (473–946 ml), providing 3–6 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight, when consumed about 60 minutes before exercise.

  • Coffee is generally considered safe and beneficial for healthy individuals within the recommended dosage range.

  • Coffee can also act as a vehicle for other dietary supplements and may interact with nutrients in other foods.

While coffee is a common source of caffeine, its inconsistent caffeine content can pose challenges. A typical cup of coffee contains about 80-100 mg of caffeine, but can vary greatly between types, making precise dosing difficult. Studies have shown that espresso from different coffee shops can vary widely in caffeine content. So, while coffee can still be an option, it lacks the precision that some athletes need.

Commercially available products such as No-Doze caffeine tablets, energy drinks, and sports nutrition products such as pre-workout, caffeinated gum, chews, strips and gels, contain more precise concentrations of caffeine. They are also a more convenient option when you are out-and-about and a coffee isn’t available, or for a top up during long training sessions or races.

If you are an athlete and subject to doping control, ensure you choose products that are third party tested.

The Downsides of Caffeine

While caffeine offers numerous benefits, it's important to acknowledge its downsides. One of the most common drawbacks is its impact on sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of 3.5-5 hours, so it lingers in your system for a while. To protect your sleep quality, it's best to avoid large caffeine intakes after 12 pm.

Gastrointestinal distress and anxiety/jitters are other potential downsides. People's experiences with gastrointestinal symptoms vary, and caffeine's performance-enhancing effects may be overshadowed by these symptoms. Anxiety and jitters can also counteract the performance boost, so careful dosage management is crucial.

A Word of Warning

Excessive intakes of caffeine can be lethal. Products containing pure or highly concentrated caffeine powder used to be commercially available, but are now banned from retail sale in Australia and New Zealand. It is important to note that the recommended safe amount for most healthy adults is considered to be 400mg/day. Consuming 6mg/kg bodyweight will exceed this for many people. You also need to take into consideration other caffeine containing foods and fluids you may consume outside of your pre-training targeted caffeine intake, such as coffee, tea, soft drink, and chocolate.

It is recommended that children should not exceed 3mg/kg of caffeine per day. For a child weighing 40kg, this is about 120mg. Specific caffeine supplementation for performance enhancement and/or the use of concentrated caffeine products are not recommended to children and adolescents.

As with any drug or stimulant, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have a medical condition such as high blood pressure or a heart condition, seek the advice of a health professional before implementing a pre-exercise caffeine protocol.

Remember, caffeine itself does not provide energy - it just masks the feeling of fatigue.

Food provides your body with REAL energy, and sleep and adequate recovery are needed to prevent you feeling tired.

The potential sports performance benefits from caffeine supplementation will never outweigh the negative affects on performance from an inadequate diet and poor recovery protocol.

If you find you are relying on caffeine to get through school, training, or work, then you may need to re-assess your daily routine, and seek the help of a Sports Dietitian or other relevant health professional if you require some help getting back on top of it all.


In conclusion, caffeine is an incredible ally in the world of athletic performance. While most of us turn to caffeine for a morning energy boost, its strategic use can lead to significant improvements in various sports and activities. Whether you're an endurance athlete or a power enthusiast, finding the right dose and timing while minimising side effects is the key to unlocking caffeine's full potential. So, next time you reach for that cup of coffee or energy drink, remember that it's not about staying awake; it's about unleashing your athletic potential.

For individualised support and guidance on implementing sports supplements for performance enhancement, such as CAFFEINE, book in with our Sports Dietitian below.


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