“I don’t think any sports medicine society has come out and advocated (caffeine) ,” said David Geier, director of sports medicine and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina. “If you’ve tried it before and you know how it affects you that’s one thing, but if you’re a low-level athlete it probably will have a much less effect, say, compared to a pro athlete.”
Caffeine acts as a stimulant to boost the body’s energy levels. Some athletes may prefer to take a caffeine pill instead of drinking a cup of coffee, but Geier said the form is not as important as the amount.
“It’s got a number of different effects, but at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it’s a central nervous system stimulant,” Geier said. “In sports it enhances your reaction time and it’s thought to delay fatigue, especially performance-related decline toward the end of a run or a competition. Some athletes also use it—although it is debated—to spare the body’s burning of glycogen, which is the primary source of energy for muscle. So potentially you don’t use up all the body’s glycogen, and to an endurance athlete maybe that’s important.”
Geier also hosts a podcast and a few months ago explained the effects and research done on athletes and caffeine.
“If you take it on a regular basis, really the effects are going to be lost,” Geier said. “Your body gets tolerant over time, so if you’re really committed to do this … ideally you’d want to take three or four days off before the competition to get it out of your system, and then do it the day of so that it goes back to being a stimulant again. Your body can become tolerant to really anything, especially a stimulant like caffeine.”
NCAA rules state that caffeine is a banned stimulant; if an athlete tests positive for a specified level of caffeine in a urination exam, he or she can be suspended.
“We don’t use caffeine … We’re not allowed to provide it,” said Scott Sehnert, Auburn University athletics dietician. “As far as what the research shows for a benefit, it’s seen almost exclusively in endurance athletes. And when I say endurance athletes, I mean they’re competing in races that are hours in length, not minutes … We don’t have that type of sport here, and I don’t endorse caffeine for that reason.”
Sehnert serves all 21 sports teams at Auburn, consulting with athletes about daily nutrition and how to make their diets compatible with the level of competition.
“Energy in the truest form comes from calories,” Sehnert said. “I’m wanting to make sure the athletes are sleeping well and that they’re consuming enough energy in the form of calories so that they can train hard. If they’re under-fueling, no matter how much sleep or how much caffeine they consume, they’re not really going to train at their very best.”
Beginning with sleep, Sehnert said eating a carbohydrate-rich diet to help fuel the body is more important than trying to compensate with multiple supplements.
“I tell them that honestly, you can’t trust anything that is a dietary supplement because it’s not monitored like food is by the FDA,” Sehnert said. “I tell them any time they take something, they run a risk of testing positive for a banned substance. It is policy that they run any sort of supplement they want to take outside of what we provide by myself or the team physician for approval.”
Auburn kinesiology professor David Pascoe began his explanation of caffeine with athletes by saying it’s a supplement that people want to monitor, not take away.
“Caffeine is not a banned substance; it’s a controlled substance,” Pascoe said. “By that I mean to participate in any level, they’re not trying to eliminate people being abstinent from caffeine. Most of the people you find in society have some level of habituation to it.
“There’s been a fair amount of research that (caffeine) has some influence on performance. Those studies usually go somewhere between three milligrams per kilogram body mass and above. There is a concern somewhat with caffeine from an athletic point of view for its diuretic effect, meaning it causes higher urine output. The literature suggest that this is not the case when a person is active.”
Pascoe has researched administering caffeine to athletes and said the effects may be minimal.
“We actually did a separate study using very high level tennis players and what the research found was that there was no diuretic effect,” Pascoe said. “There was an increase level of alertness, which we could tell from reaction times and some of that, and we actually saw an increase in skill performance, especially in the later parts of the research design.”