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Caffeine: Performance Aid or Just a Jolt?

 

Like the quest for the Holy Grail, our search for a performance or diet edge never falters. Weightlifters and runners, people doing yoga and cyclists, we listen raptly to friends who tried a new potion or pill that supposedly works wonders in their activity.

We want to be faster, last longer, look stronger, recover quicker and shed fat easily. Oh, and we want it all with as little work as possible. Magic bullets, that's what we want.

Caffeine has floated in and out of sports research and gossip for a couple of decades. Rumor has it that a good dose of the good-morning java will put wings on your feet and help your body to use fat as a fuel source during sports or even long, low-intensity activities like farming or gardening. Let's look at those ideas.

 

It all started back in the '70s when endurance runners started to experiment with caffeine to boost their performance. The theory was, caffeine helped your body stoke its fires with fat, a nearly unlimited source of energy stored in the body. Drawing on fat saved the energy stored in muscles as glycogen, which is a limited supply and usually runs out after about 90 minutes or so. Muscle glycogen is where endurance athletes normally get their oomph.

 

"Hitting the wall," the dreaded event in endurance sports, happens when our tanks of muscle glycogen are sucked dry.

Enter caffeine. Drink it and win. Drink it and burn that fat. Right? Well, it depends. A sturdy dose of caffeine could pump up your endurance on extended, moderate-intensity exercise. To get that jolt, though, you need to quaff the equivalent of about five cups of strong coffee, or eight to 12 cans of soft drinks, an hour or two before exercise, research shows. And your activity needs to be at least 90-120 minutes for it to really do any good.

So, forget caffeine for faster sprints or for better times on weekend fun runs. Forget it for higher fat-burning while, say, watching TV. (Can't counteract too many potato chips with an extra cup of coffee. Darn.) Forget it for more energetic strolls in the foothills or chasing after the kids.

 

Maybe you still think a few extra mugs of java will do you some good. Here are the warnings:

  • Caffeine is a diuretic. That means it increases your body's release of fluids. If you're undertaking long activity, especially in the heat, the last thing you want to do is rob your body of precious water and stimulate dehydration. If you be dehydrated, you’ll bonk no matter how much java you had.
  • Caffeine, especially in the amounts that give an endurance jolt, can cause an upset stomach, nausea, or – yikes! – intestinal … how do I say it? … distress.
  • Too much caffeine leads to jitters, anxiety, insomnia and heart palpitations -- not exactly aids to better performance.
  • Caffeine is now considered an illegal doping substance by the International Olympic Committee, but only at higher levels in the blood. An athlete would have to consume six cups of coffee, and as many as eight, no more than two hours before competition.

Try it if you really want, but drink plenty of water. Don't experiment when you're counting on a good performance. If you don't already drink coffee, don't suddenly start pounding down multiple shots of double espresso unless you’ve also invested in ropes to tether yourself down. Instead of drinking coffee try yoga. Here is a yoga program that you might want to try out: Yoga Burn.

No need to worry how one cup will upset your performance. Then again, one cup won't enhance it either. Still, the mental boost might help you along, and I'm not going to downplay the power of the mind.

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