Caffeine A Competitive Edge

Whether you turn to coffee, soda, or energy drinks, the primary ingredient that provides the boost you seek is the same – caffeine. Excessive intake of caffeine promotes dehydration, which is especially hazardous during physical activity.

by Lisa Esposito, MS, RD, CSSD, LN, Sports Dietician/Research Associate III, National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at Sanford

Quick fix for fatigue: Looking for that jolt of energy to help you compete or when you are ready to curl up under your desk and nap? Whether you turn to coffee, soda, or energy drinks, the primary ingredient that provides the boost you seek is the same – caffeine. Excessive intake of caffeine promotes dehydration, which is especially hazardous during physical activity. Consuming less than 300mg of caffeine a day will not cause severe dehydration; assuming you are drinking plenty of other fluids throughout the day. But what are the other effects of taking caffeine?

Positive ergogenic effects of caffeine: Scientific literature has provided little doubt of the potential ergogenic (performance enhancing) effects of caffeine on long duration activities1,2. Caffeine consumption before an event can prolong the time to fatigue for an athlete; thus allowing a longer and higher level of performance than without caffeine. Consuming 100-200mg of caffeine prior to an event is adequate to achieve this benefit. While this has been shown to be true, especially for the athlete who rarely consumes caffeinated beverages, the effects are lost on individuals who regularly consume coffee, soda or energy drinks. Importantly, one should not experiment taking caffeine on the day of competition; try it out a few weeks earlier during practice, just in case you have a negative reaction (e.g. cramping, diarrhea etc).

Risks associated with excessive consumption of energy drinks: More research is needed to determine the potentially dangerous interactions between ingredients found in certain energy drinks. The ingredients frequently mixed (e.g. caffeine, taurine, guarana etc) are not found combined in nature.

Energy drinks are not currently regulated for caffeine content and manufacturers are not required to report how much is in each can. The amount of caffeine in an energy drink can range from 50 mg to 500 mg per can/bottle depending on the brand chosen. Drinking one energy drink with 500 mg of caffeine would be equivalent to 4-5 cups of coffee or 7 cans (12 oz) of soda. Individuals who consume high levels of caffeine have reported adverse effects such as dehydration, insomnia, nervousness, headache, and tachycardia (high heart rate). Deaths around the globe have been attributed to excessive caffeine intake.

Energy drinks have become a popular mixer with alcohol. Individuals who drink alcohol in combination with energy drinks have reported a delayed awareness of the feeling of the depressive effects of alcohol; however scientific research has shown no improvements in coordination, or reaction time compared to individuals who do not mix energy drinks with alcohol3. Athletes should also keep in mind that excessive alcohol consumption can negate some of the positive effects of training.

Energy alternatives

The best way to combat fatigue is sleep. Making sleep a priority can improve how well you think and react. Consuming small meals and snacks throughout the day can also help to combat fatigue. Your brain and nervous system use glucose (carbohydrate) exclusively for energy! Depriving your body of carbohydrate can result in tired, lethargic, and confused feelings. Focus on eating fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole-grains to provide your body with the carbohydrate it needs. Eating protein with your carbohydrate following exercise can also help to improve muscle recovery after a workout. Focus on lean meats, nuts, and beans to get adequate protein throughout the day. Finally, stay hydrated! Insufficient hydration can prompt fatigue. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel when you are well rested, hydrated, and well nourished.

For more information, contact Lisa Esposito, MS, RD, CSSD, LN Sports Dietician/Research Associate III, National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at Sanford (605) 328-4750 or e-mail: lisa.esposito@sanfordhealth.org

1. Graham TE., 2001. Caffeine and exercise: metabolism, endurance and performance. Sports Med. 31, 785-807.
2. Doherty M, Smith PM., 2004. Effects of caffeine ingestion on exercise testing: a meta-analysis. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc. Metab. 14, 626-646.
3. Ferreira SE, de Mello MT, Pompeia S, de Souza-Formigoni ML., 2006. Effects of energy drink ingestion on alcohol intoxication. Alcohol Clin Exp Red. 30, 598-605.


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