Caffeine is the most researched supplement on the market, and the amount of evidence pointing to its positive effects on athletic performance is abundant.
Based on latest research and our own personal experience, we have established the Nduranz Caffeine Ingestion Protocol, which lays out the fundamental principles of caffeine ingestion during exercise. If you're in a hurry and need to consume caffeine now, go check it out.
While the positive effects of caffeine on athletic performance are tangible, there are also some caveats to its use, and there are also some important factors to consider before deciding when and if to add caffeine to your sports nutrition.
Research demonstrates positive effects of caffeine on athletic performance.
What is caffeine and why is it used in sports
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant or a psychoactive drug. It is widely used all over the world for its consistent ability to improve our cognitive ability and keep us alert.
Caffeine is also an ergogenic aid. This means it enhances energy turn-over and provides an advantage, be it physical or mental, to competing athletes.
Because of its ability to enhance athletic performance and the fact that is not prohibited as an illegal substance (below a certain threshold), it is widely used in sports as a dietary supplement in several different products.
Endurance athletes during exercise most commonly consume caffeine with energy gels that include caffeine.
Caffeine provides a competitive advantage to endurance athletes.
Should you use caffeine
The answer to why you should use a caffeine gel is a fairly straightforward one - to enhance your athletic performance and get better results.
Do we believe caffeine can in fact improve your athletic performance?
Yes, we do.
And according to research, caffeine can also increase the oxidation of ingested carbohydrates.
But don't expect to go from zero to hero simply by drinking large amounts of coffee. In reality, caffeine can give you only that extra 1% provided that carbohydrate availability is sufficient, but for a hardcore athlete like yourself, that might be all the boost you need to improve your watt per kilogram ratio and leave your competition (or your previous PB) in the dust.
There are also other reasons why caffeine is recommended, such as increased fat oxidation rates and enhanced metabolism, but we find the evidence inconclusive, so let's leave it at that for now.
We recommend caffeine to achieve moderate improvement of your athletic performance.
When to use caffeine
If you decided to use caffeine as a dietary supplement, you should also consider when to use it.
Surprisingly, there is lack of research exploring the question how caffeine affects habituated users compared to athletes who ingest caffeine rarely, and the results are inconclusive. Based on some evidence and our personal experience, a habituated user should consume slightly more caffeine in the pre-race loading phase (see next chapter).
But this brings us to the point - don't overdo caffeine. Caffeine is a great supplement to assist you in a race when it's time to give your best, but many people start using caffeine for every training session, and we advise you not to do it.
Why only take caffeine for races?
Because if you take caffeine for training sessions, you are likely to push too hard, hinder your recovery, and hurt your long-term performance. You will also get habituated to high doses and you might want to keep its effectiveness for races.
There are also side effects to caffeine, so moderation in its intake is advisable.
You should reserve the use of caffeine as a dietary supplement only for races.
How to use caffeine - "loading phase"
For a quick overview of how to use caffeine during exercise, check out the Nduranz Caffeine Ingestion Protocol.
While opinions may vary, research, at least in our view, seems to indicate that we want caffeine available from the start of the exercise.
Caffeine needs 15-30 minutes to get absorbed and become effective, so we recommend you start the pre-race caffeine loading phase within that time frame.
As far as quantity goes, evidence is relatively clear that caffeine is effective in increasing athletic performance at doses higher than 3 milligrams per kilogram of body mass, while habituated users or top-level endurance athletes may require more, up to 6 mg per kg of body mass.
An average endurance athlete with a body mass of 65 kilograms should thus ingest 200 mg to 400 mg of caffeine in the pre-race loading phase.
You should consume 3 mg of caffeine or more per kilogram of body mass 15-30 minutes before the race.
How to use caffeine - fueling
No matter how loaded with caffeine we are, concentrations in the bloodstream will soon start to decline and by the end of a long endurance event, the caffeine will not be doing its job anymore.
For this reason, it is important to fuel with caffeine during the race to preserve the concentration of caffeine in the bloodstream.
Reminds you of something?
Yes, it is very much like glycogen, and when consuming energy gels with caffeine, we can feed to birds with one scone and preserve both our glycogen and caffeine levels.
The recommended fueling dose for caffeine is 1 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body mass.
This is a simulation of what happens if a 65 kg athlete ingests 3 (bold green and light blue) or 4 mg/kg (light green and bold red) at the start of exercise. Light blue and light green mean single dose at the start of the exercise, whereas bold green and red mean topping up with 65 mg every hour. Without topping up, caffeine content starts to decline pretty rapidly over time and very soon the amount of caffeine in the body is insufficient to elicit any positive effects. However, when you top-up with 65 mg of caffeine per hour, the amount of caffeine remains above the required ergogenicity threshold.
You should fuel with 1 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body mass per hour of physical activity.
Side Effects of Caffeine
For all the positive effects caffeine may have on your athletic performance, there are also some pesky side effects you should be vary of.
Caffeine can increase your heart rate, something that some will find to impair their athletic performance, and in case of overdose might pose a risk to your health, especially with prolonged use.
Caffeine may also increase sensations of anxiety, which can lead to a decreased athletic performance and make you feel bad about life.
If you are participating in a stage race, caffeine might lead you to overexerting yourself, which negatively impacts your recovery and your performance in subsequent stages of the race, negatively impacting your final results.
You should also keep in mind that caffeine has a half-life of 3-5 hours, which means that if you consume it too late in the day, it might negatively impact your sleep cycle, which in turn negatively impacts your health and athletic performance.
When using caffeine as a dietary supplement, be mindful of its side effects.
Nrgy Unit Gel with Caffeine
Research shows that caffeine and carbohydrates work well together, as caffeine increases the exogenous oxidation of carbohydrates, which in simple terms means you get more bang for your buck when ingesting carbs.
Since the concentration of both caffeine and glycogen starts to rapidly decrease after commencing exercise, it is important to preserve their levels in the blood stream as much as possible.
Endurance athletes should consume 1 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body mass and 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour to maintain the proper concentration of caffeine and glycogen in the blood.Consuming one Nrgy Unit Gel with one Nrgy Unit Gel with Caffeine per hour allows our endurance athletes to preserve the required concentration of caffeine and glycogen in the blood, maintaining a steady athletic performance and consistently achieving great results.
Want to learn more about fueling? Then check out the interview with Dr. Tim Podlogar - The Optima Fuel for Cyclists?
Interested to see how top level fueling performs in practice? Check out this amazing feat by Dr. Tim Podlogar - Tim Podlogar Blazing Fast at Arlberg Giro