How much caffeine is allowed in sports?

by Tina Sendin September 09, 2018 3 min read

How much caffeine is allowed in sports?

Some of our favorite athletes are just like us – they have their everyday caffeine regimen and love it.

But did you know that some athletes don’t just have it as part of their morning routine? They also use it to boost sports performance.

In fact, three-fourths of the world’s elite athletes take advantage of caffeine’s performance-enhancing properties. For instance, former Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, six-time gold medalist, used to bring his own coffee paraphernalia to every competition, including the 2012 London Games. [1]

 

Chris Hoy and his bike preparing for sports

Cyclist and six-time gold medalist Chris Hoy preparing for action (credits: chrishoy.com)

 

But have athletes always been allowed to have their caffeine fix, especially right before the sport?

If so, how much are they allowed to consume?

 

Caffeine and sports performance

We’re familiar with what caffeine does. It’s a pick-me-upper. It helps us stay awake and alert. It ‘wires’ us up.

But some athletes and their performance entourage have taken this to a whole another level. They tap into caffeine’s “ergogenic” properties that enhance speed and stamina. [2]

Take it from Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times:

“Caffeine improves athletic performance. This is a truth almost universally acknowledged in exercise science.” [3]

 

Maria Sharapova and her morning coffee run

 Maria Sharapova in her morning coffee run (credits: Zimbio.com)

 

Caffeine’s perks include delaying feelings of fatigue and preventing sleep brought about by the binding of brain receptors into sleep-inducing neurotransmitter, adenosine. [4] Bodes well for globe-trotting athletes when they face this monster called jetlag!

It also aids “short-term, intense activities and improves endurance athletes’ times by up to 3 percent—a margin that could certainly matter in Olympic-caliber competition,” according to an article by Men’s Health on the subject. [5]

 

The perfect timing for caffeine

For many years, science has backed up caffeine’s big role in improving physical performance. Many athletes and their health teams believe that easing off on it days before the sporting event will boost performance.

But this new study from the Journal of Applied Physiology reports that athletes don’t really have to abstain from it. In fact, there’s no notable difference between drinking coffee days prior to the event and right before the gun start. [6]

According to Bruno Gualano, a professor of physiology and nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, who conducted the study:

“No matter the habitual caffeine intake in the diet, acute caffeine supplementation can improve performance.” [7]

Sounds like an Olympic win-win for coffee-loving athletes!

 

But caffeine has NOT always been allowed in sports

Did you know that Olympic officials used to restrict caffeine consumption? They first banned caffeine in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games and only allowed it back in 2004.

From 1984 to 2004, if athletes’ urine contained more than 12 micrograms per milliliter of caffeine, then they have a problem.

But this limit is in itself a problem for three reasons:

  • Tests aren’t precise. The amount of caffeine passing into urine can vary among different people and can range from 1 to 3 percent. [8] And this is a world of difference, especially when we’re talking about elite Olympic performance.
  • Reports and scientific breakthroughs on caffeine in sports have revealed that the stimulant’s performance-enhancing doses were “practically indistinguishable from everyday use.” [9]
  • The legal limit of 12 microgram/ml in urine is roughly equivalent to drinking 8 servings of espressos over the course of a few hours or about “four Starbucks lattes” within a couple of hours. Feeling the palpitations yet? [10]

So the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided to remove caffeine from the list of prohibited substances.

 

Caffeine in sports

Fast forward to the present and athletes enjoy happy days. They’ve been free to drink coffee, down energy drinks, pop a caffeine mint, or chew caffeinated gum for an added boost. 

 

Woman triathlete getting ready for sports

 

While there have been recent reports about WADA reinstating caffeine in the restricted list, there has been no major changes of late to the said list. [11]

Caffeine is still in the WADA watch list for 2018 though, so coffee-loving athletes aren’t totally in the clear. [12]

Some institutions still impose limits as well.

The NCAA only allows caffeine intake among college athletes to 15 micrograms per milliliter, equivalent to six to eight cups of coffee within two to three hours before a competition. [13]

 

Tina Sendin
Tina Sendin


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