Image Of An Athletic Man Outdoors Drinking Coffee Caffeine And Athletic Performance

All About Caffeine and Athletic Performance

BY Carrie McCusker

Plenty of athletes rely on caffeine to help power them through their busy schedules. Studies show that coffee can have positive health benefits, but there are caveats to just how much and how often you should hit that Starbucks.

It’s 4:45 a.m. and the alarm clock is forcing you from deep and peaceful slumber to the reality of a 5:30 a.m. swim practice. Or, it’s 8 a.m. and you’re rushing out the door to get to a busy work morning followed by a lunch interval run. Maybe it’s 2 p.m. and the afternoon heavy eyelids and fuzzy brain are taking control of your ability to be productive. For many busy athletes, the solution and complement to all of these situations is delivered simply — hot, cold, or somewhere in between — in a mug, a glass, or maybe whipped into a recovery smoothie. What is it? Coffee.

Coffee Culture

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 54% of Americans over the age of 18 consume coffee at an average of 3.1 cups every day, and the U.S. spends 40 billion dollars a year on coffee. While no studies on the athlete population’s consumption habits were readily available, it seems likely that it would be greater than that of the general population due to the simple fact that athletes are often cutting sleep and looking for ways to generate enough energy to get through busy days.

The large takeaway from the literature is that you are probably not doing yourself any physical harm by consuming coffee. More likely, moderate consumption can be good for you. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at hundreds of thousands of men and women, and the bottom line was that people who drank coffee lived longer than those who did not. Interestingly, the same health benefits were demonstrated in Japan with green tea consumption. Note that to achieve these health benefits, the caffeine may be removed from the coffee or tea itself, meaning the longevity benefits may have come from the coffee and tea plants themselves and not specifically caffeine.

Caffeine’s Negative Side

Knowing that you are not harming yourself is good, but consumption of caffeine does have some deleterious effects, many of them based on your own physiology. Some individuals experience headaches, increased heart rate, tremors or shakes and even an impairment in performance. Caffeine is also addictive and changes in brain functioning have been studied in conjunction with regular consumption.

According to the newest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) excessive intake can lead to caffeine intoxication which is followed with a newer diagnostic of caffeine withdrawal whose symptoms include fatigue, headache. and difficulty focusing. That means caffeine withdrawal is now an official mental disorder. The symptoms of withdrawal are highly unpleasant. The manual notes that many people may drink coffee not only for caffeine but also because of the pleasurable aroma and taste of coffee as well as the environment that usually accompanies coffee consumption. You become addicted to the process, not just the caffeine.

Caffeine and Athletic Performance: Pros and Cons for Athletes

There is plenty of evidence that caffeine enhances endurance and provides benefits for the athlete, including fatigue resistance and masking the perception of effort. Anyone who has added in a caffeinated gel or fuel source in an IRONMAN can testify to the uplifting effects. Recent studies confirm that modest levels of intake are best before or during exercise, and a range of 1-3mg/kg BM or 70-150 mg. In the case of caffeine, more is not more, so noting the recommended dosages and sticking in that range offers the best chance of performance benefits without the negative side effects.

Key to note once again is that the effects of caffeine clearly elicit different responses based on the individual. Since these may include impairment of athletic performance and general functioning through nervousness, loss of sleep and stomach upset, it’s important to test your own limits and find out what works for you. In referencing caffeine intake related to sports performance, coffee is not recommended as an ergogenic aid quite plainly because the amount of caffeine in a given amount of coffee varies widely and isn’t reliable in dosing.

Frequency of Consumption Might Matter

Finally, does the frequent coffee drinker lose some of the benefits of caffeine consumption related to athletic performance and is it necessary to withdraw from usage to facilitate improved response? The research is mixed and more is needed, but most recently, studies showed that regular caffeine users would be better advised to continue on their usage schedules than risk the negative consequences of withdrawal, such as headaches and fatigue. There is some evidence that the positive influence of caffeine on performance is actually reduced when habituation is not present, as there may be a higher risk of associated negative effects such as heart rate increase, tremors, and irritability. That said, keeping caffeine consumption moderate and as a part of a balanced sports nutrition plan is ideal.

As you can see, coffee consumption is okay for most people. The complexity lies in the individual, the situation and the habit-forming nature. It is important that every user recognize that coffee is not a substitute for sleep and that there are potential side effects, including withdrawal. Choosing to consume coffee and caffeine products specifically as an ergogenic aid should be thoroughly tested in training.


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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Ed. American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

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Graham, T.E. & Spriet, L.L. (1991, December). Performance and metabolic responses to a high caffeine dose during prolonged exercise. Retrieved from

Guest, N.C. et al. (2021, January 2). International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. Retrieved from

Kokubo, Y. et al. (2013, March 14). The Impact of Green Tea and Coffee Consumption on the Reduced Risk of Stroke Incidence in Japanese Population. Retrieved from

Loughlin, M. (2018, June 16). Get Food Smart: Training Diet Myths Debunked. Retrieved from

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About Carrie McCusker

Carrie McCusker is a level 2 TrainingPeaks coach and a lifelong athlete who enjoys bringing individual attention to every level of athlete. You can find her on Strava and Instagram or check out her coach profile at TrainingPeaks.

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