I am going to write this article, but, first, coffee.
Many of us start our days with caffeine, we throw back the duvet, plod down the stairs, flick a switch on the kettle and wait for its first beautiful brew before we can even think about functioning like a regular human being. Whether it’s tea, coffee or energy drinks most of us will have a caffeine craving that takes us from the walking dead to walking into work.
What is Caffeine?
We know it's in our much-loved teas and coffees and that if we don’t have it, things are going to get ugly, but their is far more to caffeine than just that. Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. An alkaloid compound, it is a central nervous system stimulant and part of the methylxanthine class, which are naturally occurring substances. It’s most recognisable ability is to block the actions of adenosine. What this means to you and I, is it prevents drowsiness and stops us from grabbing any shut eye. Appearing at its purest in the form of white crystals caffeine can also be found naturally in many forms including coffee beans, tea leaves, yoko bark, kola nuts and guarana seeds. Interestingly guarana is often an ingredient found in weight loss tablets.
What happens when Caffeine enters the body?
Caffeine is absorbed quickly through the stomach and intestine and typically is at its peak in our bloodstream 15- 45 minutes after ingestion. In humans it’s effect can last anywhere from 4 to 6 hours on average, which is why we’re taught “no coffee before bed”. We’ve already mentioned the alertness which comes as a direct side effect of caffeine, so let's look at its other effects. Ever been caught needing the loo after a coffee? Caffeine is a diuretic, so it’s going to make your trips to the bathroom more frequent, but drinking more of it won’t actually quench your thirst. Caffeine also increases heart rate, blood pressure and stomach acid production, which can help break down fatty stores and release fatty acids into the bloodstream. However the body is quick to adapt its tolerance to caffeine, and these bodily changes will only take their full effect on new users. This is why you’ll find regular users desensitise to its effects and drink what seems to be gallons before they get even an inkling of a caffeine kick. The ‘kick’ itself comes from an extra release of dopamine, our pleasure transmitter, alongside an increase of adrenaline, which gives us the rush. There’s my excuse for being cranky without coffee; blame the lack of dopamine.
What can Caffeine do for training?
Now we’ve established it’s main effects in the body, how can we use that for training? Any form of stimulant to enhance training is controversial, legal or otherwise. Is caffeine worth it? When we are training, be it an endurance run or a session in the gym, our bodies are constantly sourcing the energy to give the exercise our all. This energy comes in the form of Glycogen, your body's stored form of carbohydrate. Caffeine slows down the speed at which we use up all our glycogen stores, by promoting the use of fat as fuel. Fat is far more abundant than glycogen and what caffeine does is mobilize the body's fat stores to encourage working muscles to save glycogen and use fat as an alternative. The result: More energy to train and enhanced endurance.
It’s effect on cognitive behaviour can also help our training, caffeine’s ability to prevent mental fatigue can help bring more focus and intention to the training session or event, giving the user that ‘tunnel vision’ enabling them to push harder for an extra rep or a faster mile.
Another reason we tend to give up with our run or workout is pain. If it hurts, naturally your body is going to want to stop. Caffeine prior to training can help to dull our perception of pain, making us able to work harder for longer. It’s not to say the exercise is getting easier or any less painful, it’s just we become less aware of it. This is why you will often find painkillers contain doses of caffeine, to help alleviate pain.
With all these benefits, it's no wonder caffeine is the most common supplement used by gym-goers, bodybuilders and many athletes, who believe that caffeine gives them the edge they need to compete.
Are there any side-effects from using caffeine as workout fuel?
Whilst so far you’ve probably fallen madly in love with your caffeine, more so with every paragraph, every relationship has its flaws. Firstly, there’s the dehydration, because caffeine causes your body to flush out more water it's important to drink more fluid to replace whats lost in order to avoid muscle cramps and headaches. Ironically caffeine can be both the cause and the cure for this.
Up next there’s the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. You’ve had no sleep. You’re tired. You need caffeine to wake up. That caffeine keeps you awake at night and so the cycle continues. Although, once a tolerance is built up this phase can pass, or simply limit drinking to the morning to ensure you can still get your beauty sleep.
Too much of anything can be bad for you, but with caffeine the symptoms can be severe and an overdose can lead to caffeine ‘intoxication’. Symptoms include jitters, diarrhea and digestive issues, breathing difficulties, headaches, sweating, fever, increased thirst, increased urination, an irregular heartbeat or palpitations and even hallucinations.
So it’s clear caffeine can be a cruel mistress. But is this enough for you to break up? Probably not. Whilst caffeine does have its problems, when used in moderation its positives outweigh its drawbacks.
As for me, I don’t have a problem with Caffeine. I have a problem without it. In fact, I’m off to make a coffee now.