The Caffeine Athletic Performance Advantage Can’t Be Banned
Caffeine’s wide-ranging physiological and psychological effects have made it the performance-enhancing substance of choice for competitive athletes. It prompts the body to burn fat and conserve carbohydrates, which ensures readily available fuel; it reduces fatigue, facilitating sustained performance in both training and competition; it improves mental focus, ensuring that efforts expended ‘hit the mark’; and it increases the strength of muscular contractions, increasing overall strength.
There is now a wealth of sound scientific evidence in support of these caffeine-induced physical and mental advantages. For the past 30 years athletic regulatory agencies have grappled with the issue of whether or not to ban the use of ‘America’s most popular drug’ – and they still do.
Caffeine Regulation in the Olympics
Caffeine use by Olympic athletes was first restricted in the 1984 Summer games in Los Angeles. At that time, a urine sample containing more than 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter became sufficient cause for eliminating an athlete from competition. But the regulation proved problematic for several reasons.
One problem with the urine caffeine concentration limit is the degree of variability that exists between individuals with regard to the amount of caffeine excreted in the urine after consuming the same dose adjusted for body weight. So, for example, two individuals could consume the same dose/kg of body weight and reap the same degree of caffeine advantage with regard to performance potential; but, due to differences in caffeine excretion, one might produce a sample with a caffeine concentration that fell within the accepted limit while the other might be subject to disqualification.
Another problem with caffeine regulation in athletic competition is that the amount caffeine required to produce advantageous effects is within the ranges used by most normal adults on a daily basis. In the 1980s, when the Olympic regulatory agency capped the dose at 12 mcg/kg, it was assumed that a very large dose was required to produce a competitive edge. It takes a dose of about 9 mg/kg to yield urine levels of caffeine in the 12 mcg/kg range, which, if you’re a 150 lb. athlete, means consuming about 612 mg of caffeine. That’s a lot of caffeine – 150% of the daily limit set by the FDA. But recent research suggests that 200 mg or less is sufficient to produce significant gain in both endurance and short-term, high-intensity athletic events, and 400 mg is sufficient to produce greater force of muscular contraction. The amount of caffeine found in a cup of coffee – regardless of whether the cup volume is held constant – is highly variable, but 200-400 mg is not outside of the normal range for a standard serving. And making a determination that the consumption of a dose of caffeine used by most adults on daily basis to be ‘doping’ poses a wide range of problems.
As a consequence, the initial limit imposed by the Olympic regulatory agency was subsequently lifted, but caffeine has remained under scrutiny by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Each year, WADA – a foundation created by a group of related agencies led by the International Olympic Committee to “promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against drugs in sports.” – creates a list of drugs that are prohibited or under consideration for prohibition. In 2015, caffeine was included on the WADA monitoring program list for drugs under consideration for ‘in competition prohibition’.
Why a ‘Caffeine Competitive Advantage in Athletics’ Can’t Be Banned
While caffeine is still under serious consideration for prohibition in Olympic competition, many of the advantages of using caffeine to gain a competitive edge cannot be regulated. Caffeine is readily excreted from the body – which is why it’s use during competition can be assessed (albeit unreliably) by urine sample testing. But many of caffeine’s advantages can be accrued during the training period. Caffeine clears our system within 24 hours of ingestion so would not effect testing results at the time of the competitive event.
Caffeine’s well-documented effects on endurance performance would enable an athlete to train for longer periods of time than would otherwise be possible, and the physiological effects would remain evident in competition. Likewise, caffeine’s effect of increasing the force of muscular contraction during training would result in enduring increased muscle mass that would provide a competitive edge.
Caffeine’s performance-enhancing effects are dose-dependent. Generally speaking, 3-6 mg/kg of body weight is recommended. For a 150-lb athlete, that’s 200-400 mg (400 mg would be required for increases in strength of muscular contraction). But determining the amount of caffeine consumed can be tricky. Neither coffee nor most over-the-counter caffeine-based energy supplements are precise enough to gauge dose precisely enough to ensure a good effect.
Scientific research suggests that the inherent variability in the caffeine content of coffee can be in the range of 126%. So despite cavalier recommendations for assessing dose based on ‘X number of servings of Y-oz cups of coffee, a cup one might expect to contain 250 mg, could contain 565 mg of the drug and actually produce counterproductive results on performance. Most caffeine supplements are also notoriously unreliable because of poor regulation in the dietary supplement industry. A 2015 study conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School found that 11 out of 20 over-the-counter caffeine-based energy supplements found at U.S. Military PXs – the same products that are readily available at popular supplement stores and other outlets – had inaccurate dose information on the labels with a variability of 20% or more. Clearly, seeking out caffeine supplementation that is precisely dosed is an important first step for an athlete seeking a caffeine performance advantage – and personal calibration, early on in training, is the second. [Note: Always begin with the lowest recommended dose, follow all instructions, and heed all precautions on the product label.]
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