Could caffeine be cutting your gains?

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Ahhh the sweet nectar that is coffee. We're learning more about the benefits of coffee drinking all the time, caffeine is an awesome pre-workout drink and most of us are slowly succumbing to the temptation of caffeinated drinks be it first thing in the morning or to stave off the mid-afternoon slump.

But could caffeine be cutting your gains and limiting your performance? Should you use caffeine as a pre-workout?

Using caffeine as a pre-workout

Caffeine is a stimulant. Fact.

Hence it being massively popular to use a pre-workout. You get all sorts of physiological benefits like increased blood pressure & heart rate, increased respiratory rate, increased alertness, aids mobilisation of fatty acids into the blood stream, reduces pain perception and increases muscle stimulation. There's no doubt that using caffeine as a pre-workout helps improve performance.

But, caffeine tolerance could be negating all of that. Studies have shown that tolerance can be acquired in as little as 4 days [1], and that none of the effects like increased blood pressure could be measured. This was based on 250mg, approx 3 cups of coffee a day for 4 days.

Furthermore it took up to 3 weeks of caffeine abstinence for the effects of caffeine to return. Caffeine has negative side effects...so if you're caffeine tolerant then using it as a pre-workout might just end up being placebo at best!

Your level of arousal makes a huge difference to your performance - learn more here.

Masking fatigue and overtraining

Caffeine stimulates the release of cortisol in the body. Even if you're caffeine tolerant then you still get a dump of cortisol shortly after you consume caffeine [2]. There are two ways that caffeine could play into overtraining. Firstly by masking fatigue.

Overtraining can be correlated with adrenal insufficiency, meaning you are unable to produce normal amounts of adrenaline and cortisol. These are the hormones responsible for making you alert and awake. Both caffeine and exercise result in a temporary spike in cortisol. If you're in the early stages of overtraining and experiencing mild fatigue then caffeine can mask the effects of low cortisol, its like have a turbo boost on your car. It will work in the short term, but you'll quickly burn out. What it means is a slow increase in your caffeine consumption, like feeling the need to consume caffeine pre-workout when you wouldn't normally, could actually be a sign of overtraining rather than just 'being tired'. The risk is that by continuing to train, and using caffeine to mask the fatigue, you'll definitely cut into your gains. You risk getting full blown adrenal fatigue, and believe me, its not good.

The second mechanism that caffeine can play into overtraining is by overstimulating the adrenals. If you're already chronically stressed, this can be through illness, injury, emotional stress, restricted sleep, poor quality diet, environmental toxins (I could go on..the list is literally endless and to be honest I've not met someone yet who isn't overly stressed in some capacity!) then your adrenals will have been pumping out cortisol at a high rate for some time.

The constant, and excessive, demand for hormone production will eventually result in organ burnout. Think type II diabetes, the pancreas is unable to produce sufficient insulin 'and' the body is no longer sensitive to it.

If you're training hard, working hard, and potentially playing hard too - then don't be hitting the caffeine hard as well. You're already smashing your adrenal glands, begging for cortisol production. Don't force your body to pump out more just because you can't give up that pre-workout caffeine.

Try a deload week, or deload month for that matter! And coincide it with ramping your caffeine use down. Can absolutely guarantee that when you get back in the gym your performances will be feeling great!

Stealing hydration

Caffeine itself acts as a mild diuretic, which means it increases the production of urine. Now assuming you're always fully hydrated then this shouldn't have much of an impact. But if you're already operating slightly dehydrated, down your pre-workout, then hit a nice long workout, sweat out a kg or two in bodyweight. You're not going to be hitting any PB's that way.

Also, caffeinated drinks start to become a habit. I know a lot of patients all they drink is some form of caffeine. They make the first step of not drinking caffeine after 4pm (the half-life is about 5-6hrs so 4pm is the LATEST you should be drinking any!) but then forget to replace the caffeine with another beverage.

If you're a coffee drinker then please, please, please get yourself a 2l water bottle to drink every day. So many aspects of performance are affected by dehydration; heat tolerance, VO2max, aerobic endurance to name a few.

So should I give up caffeine altogether?

No! As an avid coffee drinker I would never force you to do that! I just wanted you to think about how, when and why you're using caffeine. I definitely use it as pre-workout, but I also have to admit that my consumption has gone up lately and I no longer feel the same benefits I used to. And it is probably being used to mask some fatigue.

So address any underlying issues - significantly reduce your caffeine intake for 3 weeks. Then consciously choose how, when and why you use caffeine.

Remember caffeine is addictive

Unchecked your consumption over time will naturally increase!



1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC370671/



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Sports Massage Therapist

Vicki Marsh MSc BA (hons) studied at Oxford University before training as a Sports Massage Therapist. With over 12 years experience she specialises in chronic pain & complex cases as well as coaching Crossfit & Weightlifters.She runs specialist workshops, creates online courses and has spoken at events such as COPA on how to grow a successful business.

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