When we think of “performance enhancing drugs,” we often think of black-market substances with serious risks. But many swimmers and triathletes get a boost from a much more common substance, one found in your morning cup of Joe.
Caffeine Use in Sports
A naturally occurring chemical compound, caffeine has been used for centuries to give energy and increase alertness. Also known as 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, it as a mild nervous system stimulant that can alter metabolism and boost concentration. It’s also an “ergogenic” aid, meaning it will enhance speed and stamina
While the use of energy drinks has risen in recent years, coffee remains the most common form of caffeine in sports. According to a study in a 2011 Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 7 percent of elite and international athletes use it prior to competing.
How Much is Too Much?
From 1984 through 2004, when caffeine urine concentration exceeded 12 micrograms per milliliter (µg/ml) an athlete was considered to be doping.
However, in 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed it from the list of banned substances because it was difficult to distinguish normal amounts from those that would enhance performance. WADA says that it is still concerned about its misuse and will continue to review it.
But according to the International Olympic Committee, caffeine cannot exceed a urine concentration of 12 µg/ml. Approximately three cups of coffee right before a competition would cause a swimmer to exceed this amount.
However, urine concentration can vary greatly due to a wide variety of factors. For one, each athlete metabolizes it differently.
Three main theories have emerged as to why caffeine works so well as a performance-enhancing drug.
First, caffeine increases the likelihood that the body will burn fat instead of glycogen. When glycogen remains stored instead of being burned for energy, endurance increases – or at least that’s the theory. It's particularly important for endurance athletes, such as triathletes. For athletes that stick to a high carbohydrate diet, this benefit is not usually necessary.
Second, caffeine lowers the rate of perceived exertion, helping to improve all athletic performance.
Lastly, it functions as a vasodilator, meaning it widens the blood vessels. This allows more blood flow to the muscles and airways, increasing performance and endurance.
Caffeine and Muscle Function
Caffeine particularly enhances the performance of shorter-distance swimmers by:
• Providing a lower threshold for muscle recruitment
• Enhancing nerve impulse transmission
• Increasing processes that help with muscle contraction
For increased swimming distances, caffeine can delay fatigue by reducing the swimmers effort perception and increasing their concentration.
The Downsides of Caffeine
While caffeine can improve sports performance, it is not without its risks.
Coaches are prohibited from prescribing it to swimmers. It also increases the risk of dehydration, which is the last thing an athlete needs to be worried about.
Additionally, it can make some swimmers nervous and shaky. Everyone can react differently to different forms of caffeine, making it difficult to predict its outcomes.
Athletes can also develop a tolerance; that is, with increased use, the body needs more and more to see the same positive effects. For best results, athletes need to cut out all other forms of it in their diet and just focus on using it for its sports benefits.
Heavy use can lead to a wide array of problems, including insomnia and headaches. Even non-athletes can become dependent on caffeine, and it may lead to chronic fatigue.
The Best Use of Caffeine for Swimmers
A systemic review, published in a 2010 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, suggests that the physiological effects of caffeine are broadly uncertain for high-intensity short duration exercise. The best results, they advise, will come to highly trained athletes.
It should also be trialed at training before use in competition (and then only within the allowable limits).
Researchers warn that caffeine should not come in the form of energy drinks, coffee, or sodas; these beverages have additional ingredients that could alter its effectiveness and increase other risks.
Swimmers, and really all athletes, are on an eternal quest for an ‘edge.’ However, caffeine should be used with caution and in moderation. Performance-enhancing drugs should never become a substitute for the results brought by hard work and dedication.