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Does Caffeine Motivate Your Workout?

Can caffeine motivate your workout? This question is center stage of a notable study on caffeine and exercise. This study is one of several that suggests, whatever your sport, caffeine may allow you to perform better as well as enjoy yourself more.

For years, scientists and athletes alike have known that caffeine before a workout jolts athletic performance, especially in endurance sports such distance running and cycling.  Caffeine has been proven to increase the circulation of fatty acids in the bloodstream enabling people to run or pedal longer.  The increase in the circulation of fatty acids in the bloodstream allows the muscles to absorb and burn that fat for fuel and save the body’s limited stores of carbohydrates until later in the workout. Caffeine, which is legal under International Olympic Committee rules, is the most popular drug in sports.  In a recent report, more than two-thirds of approximately 20,680 Olympic athletes had caffeine in their urine, with use highest among triathletes, cyclists and rowers.

Not as clear is how caffeine affects less-aerobic activities, such weight training or playing a stop-and-go team sport like soccer or basketball.

Researchers at Coventry University in England recently studied 13 fit young men (in a double-blind study) asking them to repeat a standard weight-training gym regimen. An hour before one workout, the men consumed a sugar-free energy drink containing caffeine. An hour before another, they drank the same beverage, minus the caffeine. During the weight training regimen, the men lifted, pressed and squatted, performing each exercise until exhaustion.

Exhaustion occurred much later for those who consumed caffeine first. The men consuming the caffeine also completed significantly more repetitions of the exercises than after the placebo. They also reported feeling subjectively less tired and, perhaps the most interesting finding, felt eager to repeat the workout again soon.

Michael Duncan, a senior lecturer in sports science at the University of Exeter in England and lead author of the study commented,  “Essentially, we found that with the caffeinated drink, the person felt more able to invest effort.  They would put more work into the training session, and when the session was finished, in the presence of the caffeinated drink, they were more psychologically ready to go again.”  Dr. Duncan further explains that the physiological and psychological influence of caffeine on weight trainers isn't yet fully understood.  Contrary to endurance sports, an increase of fatty acids in the blood wouldn’t provide much benefit in this type of exercise.

Dr. Duncan theorizes that caffeine “antagonizes adenosine”.  Adenosine is a substance in muscles that builds up during exercise and blunts the force of contractions. The more adenosine in a muscle, the less force it generates. Caffeine reduces adenosine levels enabling a more forceful muscular contraction and a dealy in fatigue.

Other research suggests that additional mechanisms may also be at work. For an experiment published in The Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers asked a group of volunteers who regularly play team sports to complete a grueling workout designed to simulate the physical exertion of a soccer or basketball game. These sports commonly involve repeated bouts of intense sprinting withlittle prolonged slower running, making most of the effort anaerobic.

In the test, the volunteers performed about 16 percent better if they had ingested a caffeine capsule 70 minutes beforehand. They also had far less potassium in the fluid between their muscles afterward leading to the belief that potassium buildup is a factor in the fatigue that occurs during anaerobic activities such as team sports and weight training.

Caffeine, while affecting muscles, seems to also have an effect on the central nervous system and on those parts of the brain involved in mood, alertness and fine motor coordination during exercise. In a study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, soccer players played more accurately if they had caffeine than if they didn't have caffeine.

The question of how much caffeine is optimal for performance remains. It does appear, however, that caffeine can delay fatigue and enhance your mood.

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