Humans have been getting jiggy (or jittery, as the case may be) with caffeine almost as long as there have been humans, with some anthropologists saying its usage goes back to 600,000 BCE, or the Stone Age. And we've been using it as a physical performance enhancer almost as long. Today caffeine is one of the most popular ingredients in workout supplements, found in exercise drinks, powders, pills and bars.
"Anecdotally this is something athletes have known about and been doing for a long time," says Brian Schulz, MD, a surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, CA. "I've seen many, many athletes use it right before game time or a competition."
Yet research on how exactly caffeine affects our bodies when we exercise, and if it has measurable benefits, has been scarce. So, sure, you may love your caffeinated workout supplement, but does it actually work?
Researchers from the University of Georgia decided to put the caffeine question to the test by doing a meta-analysis of all the existing research and analyzing the data together. Their verdict? Caffeine can help, to a point. People who took a dose of caffeine about an hour before their workout saw nearly a 30 percent boost in endurance as well as being more likely to complete their workout.
But before you get too excited, there are some caveats. First, the people in the study took a whopping 3-7 grams (3,000 to 7,000 mg) of caffeine. For comparison, one cup of coffee has about 90 milligrams. Going above 180-200 mg of caffeine in one dose can be dangerous, Schulz says, and it's particularly easy to overdose when you're using supplements instead of drinks. Over the past couple of years, at least four deaths in America have been attributed to caffeine pills and powders. And a British marathoner died of a heart attack after ingesting about 5 grams of caffeine powder in the form of a popular workout supplement.
Even if you're not at risk for killing yourself, Schulz points out that excessive caffeine use can cause health problems by upping your blood pressure and heart rate, which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and heart palpitations. It's particularly risky for people with heart problems or those taking decongestant medications. He adds that it's important to be cautious about combining workout supplements as all of them may have some stimulants that, when added together, can make a toxic dose.
Yet when used wisely, caffeine can give you a small but significant boost, as the study shows. And at low levels, it is considered generally safe. The key, according to Schulz, is moderation. "Stick to the equivalent of two cups of coffee or one energy drink," he advises. "And instead of using it before every workout, save it for race day when it will be most effective."
In the meantime, there are plenty of safe ways to give yourself a boost during your workout — like taking vitamin supplements, eating a meal with protein and carbs, making sure you're drinking enough water and replacing lost electrolytes.
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