Caffeine is Dope

Publication Year: 
1996

Image retrieved from en.wikipedia.org on October 4th, 2014.

In December 1993, things looked good for twenty-four year-old Sylvia Gerasch, the European champion in the 100-meter breast stroke. But only a month later she was stripped of her swimming title, dropped from the German racing team, and banned from further competition for two years (Reuters 1994). The reason? She drank too much coffee.
In January 1994, as part of the routine drug testing of athletes, Gerasch was found to have 16 micrograms per milliliter. Officials of the European Swimming Federation pointed out that such levels could be achieved only if Gerasch had consumed the equivalent of about eight cups of strong coffee in a short period prior to the testing. Gerasch protested the ruling, saying that she was only drinking her normal amount. But she didn't say what that amount was, and the officials stood firm.
Gerasch is hardly an isolated case. Other swimmers, runners, and bicycle racers have been penalized in recent years for excessive use of caffeine—a practice that for many years has been widespread but not always regulated. The issue first came to a head in 1962, when the International Olympic Committee listed caffeine as a “doping agent”--that is, a substance (such as steroids) that provides an artificial performance boost. In a controversial move, the committee removed caffeine from the list in 1972, but then reinstated it in 1984. Although this action surprises people who don't consider caffeine a drug—much less a “doping agent”--current research strongly supports the Olympic Committee's actions.
Caffeine has long been used to increase physical endurance, in both humans and animals. In Tibet, horses and mules working at extremely high elevations are often given large vessels of tea to increase their capacity for work (Gilbert 1992). the animals' masters, too, keep themselves going with caffeine. The distances between Tibetan villages is sometimes reckoned by the number of cups of tea necessary to sustain a person travelling that route, three cups of tea being roughly equal to 8 kilometers.
Studies of caffeine's effects on athletic performance have, for the most part, corroborated such anecdotal observations. For instance, recent research at Christ Church College in Canterbury, England, showed that caffeine reliably increased performance in several running events. Eighteen runners of various abilities ran a 1,500-meter time trial. The runners covered the first 1,100 meters at a predetermined pace and were then instructed to run the final leg as fast as they could. All ten “kicked” faster on caffeine—and also produced less fatigue-inducing lactic acid in their blood.
In another study, bicyclists who took 330 milligrams of caffeine one hour before exercising were able to pedal an average of 19.5 percent longer than subjects who drank no caffeine (Burke 1992). Impressed by results such as these, many professional bicyclists drink caffeine-containing beverages both before and during a race. Some even insert caffeine suppositories before a race in an attempt to provide a sustained dose with no stomach upset.
Exactly how caffeine boosts physical performance is still not clear. Attention originally focused on the way caffeine affects muscle contraction and reflexes. In 1913, the scientist Storm van Leeuwen reported that caffeine increased spinal reflexes in cats. Contemporaries reported similar increases in the familiar “kneecap,” or patellar, reflex in humans. But these and other early studies could not be replicated later (Battig and Wetzl 1993). More recent studies of individual muscle fibers isolated outside the body show that caffeine can increase the speed and force of contraction, but only when caffeine levels are significantly higher than those found in the blood of even the most caffeine-abusing athlete (Fredholm 1984). A relatively new line of research suggests that muscle contractions may be stimulated by dopamine released by caffeine in the brain (Josselyn and Beninger 1991). But this theory is still quite sketchy and tentative. In the meantime, attention among sports physicians has turned away from the muscles themselves and toward the fuel that powers muscular activity in general.
Many studies have found that caffeine releases fat stored in cells and breaks it down into the smaller fatty-acid chains that the body burns as fuel. Caffeine may release these fatty acids directly via some as-yet-unknown process, or it may do so indirectly by raising adrenaline levels. Regardless of the mechanism, caffeine's ability to liberate some of the fuel supply stored in fat may explain its beneficial effects on athletic performance.
This effect can be strongly influenced by diet. One study found that the greatest release of fatty acids occurred after athletes ate a rather atypical meal of sausage, bacon, and eggs (Weir et al. 1987). The effect was negligible when athletes ate a more common “carbohydrate loading” breakfast of cereal, toast, and orange juice. It has also been found that peak free fatty-acid levels occur three to four hours after caffeine ingestion. This suggests that caffeine may be acting on more that just fat liberation, since it has been shown to boost performance in both short-duration and endurance sports. It may be that athletes engaging in short-duration events, for instance, benefit from caffeine's stimulation of the central nervous system, while endurance athletes may get their boost from the longer-term increase in fatty acids released by caffeine after several hours.
Whether caffeine helps or hurts a given athlete is a matter of individual response. Some athletes find it helpful, while others find that they suffer from an acid stomach, increased nervousness, or dehydration and thus avoid it. In any case, the current legal limits for caffeine are sufficiently high to allow a wide latitude of experimentation. The Olympic legal limit of 12 micrograms per milliliter (which has been widely adopted for other sporting events) is equivalent to about six cups of coffee consumed within thirty minutes. Since the results obtained in the studies mentioned earlier were found at levels considerably below this limit, it appears that caffeine is likely to continue to be one of the most widely used doping agents in athletic competitions.

pp. 142-145 of Buzz The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine by Stephen Braun (1996)

Sylvia Gerasch
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