Elevating Athlete Nutrition - Coffee, Energy Drinks, and other Caffeinated Beverages

Feel like you’re hearing all kinds of nutrition information everywhere? I sure do! It’s on the news, all over Facebook feeds, in magazines, on Instagram…  It can be hard to decipher what is real, and what is not! So, I am here to give you science based professional advice that IS real! Nutrition is a tool for you to use. Food can affect your performance positively, or negatively. Let’s work on putting food in to fuel us the right way.

Coffee, Energy Drinks, and other Caffeinated Beverages

Elevating Athlete Nutrition

Keeping with the topic of fluids and performance, let’s talk caffeine. Many athletes enjoy a little caffeine lift in the morning, during lunch breaks, before training and during competition. However, the question comes up regarding caffeine and performance. To caffeinate, or not to caffeinate. We can talk about caffeine as a part of a sports diet and try to help you determine if you want to take it, or leave it in regards to your performance.

Claims about caffeine and performance:

·        Increases energy

·        Increases endurance

·        Increases fat burning

·        Increases mental sharpness

What does the research show?

Science does have proof that caffeine can be beneficial for athletic performance. Caffeine has been tested in many studies as an ergogenic aid (ability to enhance physical performance) for endurance and short term-high intensity exercise. The vast majority of the studies conclude that caffeine does indeed enhance performance. The average improvement performance is about 12%, seen mostly during endurance exercise, short bursts of exercise but a negligible amount of sprinters.

As for endurance, caffeine has been shown to delay fatigue by reducing the athlete’s perception of effort. It increases the concentration of hormone-like substance in the brain (B-endorphins) during exercise. These endorphins affect mood state, reduce perception of pain, and create a sense of well-being, making effort seem ~6% easier.

Caffeine has also been shown to have the ability to breakdown fat more readily by blocking adenosine receptors on fat cells. Blocking these receptors causes an increase in the level of free fatty acids in the blood, therefore increasing fat burning during exercise. This effect can enhance endurance performance, however at a low factor.

As for brain power, caffeine can improve mental alertness, mood, and coordination. Many studies have demonstrated that caffeine leads to enhanced cognitive performance involving various tasks. Caffeine stimulates the brain and contributes to more clear thinking and greater concentration. It is also cited for its positive effects on vigilance, mental alertness, and feeling of well-being. 

Benefits of the caffeine jolt are seen in athletes who rarely drink coffee, as they are less tolerant to its stimulant effect. Caffeine does not appear to benefit short term, high intensity exercise (sprinting).


Caffeine has proven uppers, but how about the downers. It is important to weigh the possible side effects, including:

·        Nausea

·        Muscle tremors

·        Heart palpitations

·        Headaches

·        Anxiety

·        Irritability

·        GI distress.

Some athletes may experience a decrease in performance from caffeine intake, usually due to the side effects. Differences in metabolism, diet and frequency of caffeine use are some of the factors that can determine how an individual will react.

Hydration is another factor to consider. You may have been warned about caffeine’s diuretic effect on our bodies. One cup of coffee can equate to negative one cup of water. If you choose caffeine, you need to up your hydration as well.  Plus, being a diuretic increases urine production. This can exacerbate dehydration day-to day. However, studies show exercise negates this effect.

Another downer in some caffeinated beverages is the sugar content. If Starbucks is your preferred source of caffeine, be warned. Their specialty coffees are filled with sugar. A 16-oz Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino gets you a whopping 470 calories of sugar and fat. If you recall pre-game nutrition, these guys aren’t your friends. Plus, 5 teaspoons of sugar can inhibit the effects of caffeine.

Also super important to note. Caffeine is tested on drug screenings. Urinary levels up to 12mg/liter are acceptable. Caffeine is considered a performance enhancer, and above this is deemed a deliberate attempt at doping 8 cups of coffee would be required to exceed the current IOC limit. But do note, people can metabolize caffeine at very different rates.

In A Nut Shell…

·        Moderate doses of caffeine: 200-300mg has been seen to improve performance. More than moderate use does not offer additional benefits, and higher doses may lead to negative effects. The amount your body will tolerate is individualized

·        Higher doses of 9-13mg/kg may improve performance, however are likely to cause side effects and raise urinary caffeine levels above the IOC and NCAA doping levels.

·        Caffeine falls under the stimulant class of banned substance in the NCAA. Athletes will fail the test if they have above 12 microgram per milliliter in their urine.

·        Timing: blood levels of caffeine peak in as few as 15 minutes, and average of 45 minutes after ingestion

·        If you are a regular coffee drinker, you should cease coffee consumption four to six days before a match. Caffeine’s performance enhancing effects decrease with continuous use.

·        Avoid caffeine that contains added sugars

·        Be aware of possible side effects, every person reacts to caffeine differently.

·        It’s up to you to determine what works for your body. Don’t assume you will perform better from a caffeine boost. Experiment during training to determine if caffeine or water is best for you.

·        To give you more of an idea of how much caffeine is in products: see chart

I hope this helps you stay on point! If you have any additional questions, or need more help with power fueling, shoot me an email! at elevatemynutrition@gmail.com I’d love to help you!

Eat power food, be powerful.

Lindsay Wexler, RDN, CSSD, LD

Clinical Dietitian, Board Certified Sports Dietitian

Website: ElevateMyNutrition.com

Email: elevatemynutrition@gmail.com