When nearing the business end of your race with fatigue setting in, gulping down an energy gel might be an appealing prospect. But would it improve your performance if it’s a caffeine gel?
Most of us love a coffee. It’s thought up to 90% of Americans make it part of their daily routine and when it came to winning Olympic gold, British endurance runner Mo Farah wouldn’t take to the track without first getting his caffeine fix.
But Farah wasn’t drinking coffee purely for the taste. His decision was informed by research that caffeine taken before racing can improve endurance performance.
When other studies began to show that caffeine taken during long distance races could also spur us on, sports nutrition companies started to take note, and began selling energy gels with added caffeine.
Our Chia Energy Gels are the only ones to give athletes the option of blending their gel with fresh coffee. If you’re going to have caffeine, you might as well do it properly!
Why caffeine energy gels became a thing
From a performance perspective, it’s long been accepted caffeine can provide a boost. Anti-doping bodies even previously imposed a limit - roughly equivalent to having six cups of coffee in our system - until it was decided caffeine was so ubiquitous in everyday life that it was farcical to enforce.
While the initial theory was that caffeine might help glycogen stores last longer, it’s now believed the main benefit is that caffeine aids carbohydrate absorption. This means more available energy for the athlete to use, and less carbohydrate sloshing around in the gut and causing GI issues.
This study by Talanian and Spriet, found that low and moderate doses of caffeine ingested late in exercise improved time-trial performance in 15 cyclists. Which seems to show that caffeine gels will be an excellent addition to our sports nutrition, right?
Not quite so fast.
Caffeine gels are not the same as other energy gels
Caffeine is chiefly a stimulant, and works in a very different way to simple carbohydrates that replenish energy stores because they can be broken down more easily than fat, protein or more complex carbs.
Carbohydrate typically comes in either low-grade maltodextrin as found in most ordinary energy gels, or as natural ingredients like chia seeds and coconut palm sugar, which are key ingredients in 33Fuel’s Chia Energy Gels.
Does your ticker love caffeine as much as you love coffee?
In comparison, caffeine directly impacts our central nervous system, which can make us go from sluggish to alert, to jittery (if we consume too much).
The risks of caffeine gels for endurance
Because of its effects (from causing high blood pressure to anxiety, disrupting sleep to spiking heart-rates) and its unwitting consumption in high volumes (it is present in many day to day foodstuffs), some experts have called for caffeine to be regulated like alcohol.
That might seem extreme but it’s important to understand that how we react to caffeine changes from person to person.
According to research from DNAFit - a brand that attempts to match your diet to your genetics - either we have the variation of a gene CYP1A2 that metabolises caffeine. Or we don’t.
This suggests some of us would be best avoiding caffeine completely, while others can probably function well on more than the recommended daily limit of 400mg (one mug of filter coffee is about 140mg).
It’s also worth noting that the research outlined above is looking at performance and not health, so while it might promote the benefits of taking caffeine energy gels later in races, it does not look at the inherent risks.
For this we need common sense.
At mile 20 in a marathon when you are already on your limit, heart-rate is high and your body is depleted, the body’s ‘central governor’ will try to slow you down. (See Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Theory - a self-regulating notion independent of conscious thought).
If you override this governor through a stimulant such as caffeine, it’s important that you understand the added demands on an already highly-stressed body. Many amateur athletes don’t, which is little surprise given that ordinary caffeine energy gels are marketed in the same way as any other off-the-shelf energy gel.
To understand just how much caffeine you could be taking on with a caffeine energy gel, here’s some food for thought:
Coke is the go-to drink for many a competitor in the latter stages of an Ironman. Given caffeine energy gels can have up to 150mg of caffeine in one sachet, just two would be equivalent to more than six full cans of Coke - taken in a concentrated format, when the body is already under duress, and the heart working like a steam train.
Should caffeine gels be used for endurance sport? Understand the bigger picture and proceed with caution.
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