Addiction to stimulants has gotten such a bad rep as of late. Sure, it would be great if we were all vegans who sowed our own produce in pesticide-free veggie patches in our back yards and practiced yoga, cardio and life affirming spiritual quests. But let’s get serious.
Most of us are slugging our way through days at the office keeping ourselves awake not by virtue of the stimulating challenges that await us at every turn, but instead trying to make it through the day on a caffeine-induced high only to be rewarded by having to go to the gym to try to keep our office-chair butts from overtaking the effortless toned asses of our yesteryear.
So wouldn’t it be great news if we discovered that one of our greatest daily vices, caffeine, actually helped accomplish the goals of the after-work flogging we undergo at the gym? Well, several studies have shown that there may be certain physical bonuses to our favorite (legal) stimulant.
As with any substance that brings us pleasure, we are often inundated by facts about how caffeine is bad for us. But why do we always focus on the negative? Aside from keeping us from bonking our faces on our computer monitors during our daily mid-afternoon slump, caffeine has shown itself to have some interesting effects on our bodies when we are working out, especially when it comes to increasing our endurance.
When we ingest caffeine, where do all of those wonderful feelings come from? Aside from the delicious aroma and taste of a nice full-bodied cup of coffee, caffeine is a stimulant that goes to work directly on our nervous systems by blocking andosine, which has a calming effect on us, and stimulating adrenal glands. Add to that a hike in our heart rate and the dopamine in our systems (the hormones that makes us feel pleasure), caffeine really gets the body pumping.
Many, many studies have been done on the effects of caffeine on the human body in the past 50 years (they can’t accept that it just feels good, can they?). A few of these studies, especially beginning in the 1970s, have focused on the possible effects that caffeine may have as a performance enhancer in sports. Some of the perceived effects on physical endurance have been largely psychological: because caffeine increases alertness, it also decreases the perception of fatigue, allowing a person to go that extra mile or two.
One hypothesis that seems to have been accepted as fact is that caffeine improves one’s endurance in moderately strenuous activities. A 1991 study by T.E. Graham and L.L. Spriet found that the ingestion of 2-13 mg of caffeine/kg can improve endurance in trained athletes by between 20-50%. The results of caffeine’s effect on endurance has led to a discussion of the ethical use of caffeine as a performance-improving drug in competition. In fact, while it has not banned the use of caffeine altogether, the Olympic Committee has restricted its use in athletes to under 12 mg/kg in Olympic competition (the equivalent of about 8 regular cups of coffee).
The reason for this increase in endurance is believed to be because caffeine may increase fat utilization in the body when it is involved in strenuous activity and decrease carbohydrate utilization. This results in a delay in glycogen depletion (glycogen is energy stored in muscles tissue that breaks down during exercise), which increases endurance. Studies have shown that ingested caffeine peaks in one to two hours, so that it is believed that caffeine’s benefits last between 30 minutes and two hours.
As far as benefits for increasing performance for building muscle, there are contradictory studies that seem to cancel each other out at this point in time. While some studies state that caffeine may increase the force of muscle contraction, other studies contradict those findings. Such is the way of science. One thing does seem clear: if you use creatine to enhance your workout, the use of caffeine is contraindicated. That is to say that any caffeine you ingest will counteract anything that the creatine is doing for your body. If you were to choose between the two, I would go with the lab-approved effects of creatine.
There always is one. While the use of caffeine can conceivably improve one’s endurance, there are other factors to consider when deciding whether or not you want to use it to improve your workout. One of the major factors is this: while caffeine ingested as a pill is shown to provide the benefits listed above, drinking coffee itself does not show any benefits whatsoever. Something in the way that coffee is processed, or the other components that make up a cup of joe, takes away from the benefits of pure caffeine. So if you are going to use coffee as a performance enhancer, don’t bother consuming it in a travel mug on the way to the gym.
Also, if you are going to the gym to improve your general wellness, not to train for an endurance event, keep in mind that caffeine hinders the absorption of important nutrients into the body, including zinc, potassium, vitamin B, iron and magnesium. And if you are involved in some intense training, especially if you are in the heat, be sure to guard against dehydration. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning your kidneys will be working overtime and you need to consume plenty of fluid to keep them flushed. Lots of water is especially important when you are strength training as water is important for the transfer of nutrients in the body to stimulate muscular growth.
Finally, there are the pesky side effects of caffeine, which include raised heart rate and blood pressure. Also, because caffeine is addictive, you will build up a tolerance for the stuff, suffering headaches, restlessness and irritability when going through withdrawal. Caffeine can also disrupt sleep patterns at night, making the caffeine consumption a bit of a vicious circle the next day at work when you are struggling through your day. If you happen to overdose on caffeine, there are the equally unpleasant side effects of nausea, the shakes, light-headedness, excessive urination, and the true work-out ender: diarrhea, which does not help your endurance at all.
If you are a serious athlete who trains for endurance, you may find that there are many benefits to working moderate amounts of caffeine into your workout. Of course, the purists always say the best way to get healthy and stay in shape is with diet, exercise and sleep, but if there are benefits to one of our vices, we might as well know it, recognize it, and celebrate it. It doesn’t happen often enough.