Caffeine: The Recommended Protocol

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On 1 January 2004 caffeine was removed from the 2004 World Anti-Doping Agency Prohibited List, allowing athletes to consume caffeine within their usual diets and/or for sport-specific purposes. The reason for this is that it was recognised that caffeine enhances performance at doses similar to the low-moderate doses consumed in everyday use.

Since then caffeine has become one of the most commonly used performance-enhancing supplements in sport, like triathlon. It is used both by elite and recreational athletes, largely due to its ergogenic effects. The major benefit of caffeine on exercise capacity and endurance appear to be its effects on the central nervous system; caffeine appears to reduce the perception of fatigue, thus allowing optimal pacing and work to be maintained for longer periods.

However, it’s important to note that individuals vary in their response to caffeine. While caffeine may positively benefit some athletes, others may have a negative reaction, hence why if an athlete is planning on using caffeine during an event, it is important to practice caffeine consumption in training to assess individual tolerance.

Race-day Caffeine Protocol

Caffeine is rapidly absorbed reaching peak plasma concentrations within about an hour after ingestion. This is why the traditional approach to caffeine supplementation has been to consume caffeine about an hour prior to the start of the race.

Studies have shown that the amount of caffeine needed for ergogenic benefits is about 1-3mg caffeine/kg body mass resulting in about 3% improvement in performance. There is little evidence to suggest that performance benefits increase with higher caffeine doses, therefore, if an athlete is planning on using caffeine during an event or race, to obtain ergogenic benefits a maximum dose of 3mg caffeine/kg body mass an hour before the start of the race, is recommended, as this level of caffeine is also less likely to cause side effects like gastrointestinal distress and extra visits to the toilet.

The amount of caffeine recommended throughout a race, that has been shown to enhance performance is about 1.0-2.0mg/kg body mass. However, the timing of caffeine intake will vary between individuals, based on individual tolerance and need.

There is no one optimal protocol for the timing of caffeine supplementation during a race. Athletes vary widely in their caffeine intake during a race and will typically either spread caffeine throughout the race or will leave it for later in the race, for example, towards the end of the bike or on the run when fatigue sets in. The timing of caffeine supplementation during the event is based on individual preference with similar performance benefits seen with varying protocols.

Studies have shown similar benefits of 3% improvements in performance with varying caffeine protocols. That is, similar results have been seen when ‘six doses of caffeine of 1mg/kg body mass were spread throughout a 2-hour submaximal cycling bout prior to the time trial, when 6mg/kg body mass of caffeine was consumed 1 hour prior to the cycling bout , or when small bouts of caffeine (~1.5mg/kg body mass) were consumed over the last third of the cycling bout’.

An effective strategy might be to ingest about 3mg/kg 60minutes before the start of the event, followed by 1mg/kg every two hours after that. For example, for a 60kg female athlete, this equates to 180mg caffeine an hour before a race, which is about the same as a cup of coffee, then 60mg every two hours after that, which is the same as about two caffeinated PowerBar sports gels.

Athletes intending to use caffeine on race day, are advised to experiment with different caffeine protocols to determine the protocol that best suits their individual need.

To gain further insight into caffeine intake during a race I spoke with Mr. Stephen Lane, Exercise Physiologist at RMIT and director of HPTek. Stephen agrees that there is no exact protocol for caffeine intake during an endurance event. He states, it’s variable and based on individual preference; some athletes have been known to take upwards of 8mg/kg in the latter stages of the bike leg in an Ironman event as caffeine will help to reduce the perceived exertion off the bike and initiate a good run pace.

Stephen’s tips for caffeine intake during an event… 

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