Caffeine as a Sports Enhancing Drink: An Examination of the Positive and Negative Effects of Caffeine for Athletes

Recently, energy drinks containing caffeine have become quite popular within the athletic community. Whereas formerly, caffeine was only ingested through drinks such as coffee, tea and in small doses soda, now the market for energy drinks has increased the access to caffeine.

Caffeine is one of the most consumed drugs in the country. A five ounce cup of coffee contains between 75 and 150 mg of caffeine, while a twelve ounce serving of soft drinks or an ounce of chocolate would have something between 25 and 60 mg of caffeine. Caffeine can  also be found in over-the-counter medications, such as analgesics, stimulants and allergy drugs, somewhere between 30 and 200 mg.

Nowadays, more and more of these energy drinks have appeared on store shelves. A standard sixteen ounce energy drink has between 140 and 170 mg with some having up to 300 mg of caffeine. Their increasing popularity has given rise to the question of whether the chemical can assist in the performance of athletes. The resulting answers give rise to words of caution as well as an assessment of their ability to help athletes have a better game.

Even the scientific community is deep in a debate determining if caffeine is a true ergogenic aid. Caffeine research is quite expansive, with a large number of factors that affect empirical results. These factors include one’s tolerance to the drug, the dosages and the type of activity. What has been determined though is that some activities can be enhanced while some others are limited with the use of caffeine. Another conclusion would be that long-term dependence on caffeine can result in problems regarding performance and overall health of the individual user.

This drug is considered as a central nervous system stimulant as it provides arousal and alertness together with the ability to fight off both mental and physical fatigue. The drug also affects cardiovascular, pulmonary and neuromuscular systems. As a result, many view caffeine as an ergogenic aid, thus aiding athletic performances. Currently, the World Anti-Doping Agency has removed caffeine as a prohibited substance, labeling it merely as a mild stimulant.

Caffeine is still very much an irony, especially when it comes to its effect on the neuromuscular system of an individual. In the laboratory setting, isolated muscle tissue increases in strength when exposed to the drug. However, in order for an individual to achieve this, it would require an ingestion of as much as 500 times the caffeine blood level one might experience even after several cups of coffee. At a more reasonable dose of 300 mg, there is no change in muscle strength or power. The measurable effects caffeine does have, though, are a decrease in reaction time and movement ability because of the arousal effects on the individual’s central nervous system. This effect would be important especially when reacting to the starting gun or the reaction to movements of an opponent.

Despite its reaction time improvement effect, it has a nugatory effect on the fine control movements of the individual. This is characterized with the reduction of hand steadiness and a reduction in fine motor skills. This would essentially affect the performance in sports activities such as archery and other skill competitions.

Another effect of ingestion of caffeine is the options of fuel utilization during exercise. The body has two choices for energy production, namely glucose and free fatty acids. Glucose is found in the blood while free fatty acids are found in cells throughout the body. When the body undergoes endurance events lasting more than two hours, the performance is affected by the available muscle glycogen and glucose in the blood. When the glycogen levels fall, so does blood glucose levels and results in deterioration in one’s performance. Caffeine affects this process through the release of the FFA’s from fat tissue, resulting in greater use of the FFA thus increasing performance. This spares the muscle glycogen and retains the blood glucose levels, maintaining the performance. Even moderate caffeine consumption, about 250 mg, creates this push for better performance.

Despite these benefits, there are also side effects from high doses caffeine. These include severe anxiety and nervousness, gastrointestinal discomfort and cardiac arrhythmia as well as elevated blood pressure. Caffeine is also a diuretic, inducing frequency of urination and a danger towards dehydration. Another major issue is the variable responses of individuals to caffeine. Levels dangerous to some may even just be enough for others to see marked improvements in their sports performance. The third and most important issue is the addictive nature of caffeine. This is often seen in caffeine dependent individuals, where withdrawal symptoms include headaches, fatigue and irritability as well as nausea. The dependence may also be psychological in nature, resulting in greater problems in the long run.

In the end, it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not to use caffeine as an aid in sports performance. A cup of coffee probably won’t hurt, but the regular use of high caffeine sports drinks might be worse in the long-run. Dependence would be the most glaring problem, especially in the psychological sense, as one might get to the point where they feel they are unable to perform at their best without ingesting the sports drink, and long-term high caffeine doses could lead to central nervous system fatigue. Despite its widespread use, caffeine is still a potent drug with effects on the individual and thus must be used with caution.

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