Caffeine and Crossfit

Date Posted - March 22, 2017
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Caffeine is a bit of a doubled edged sword, some people feel it gives them superpowers while others just get the jitters.

The use of caffeine is becoming more and more common among those looking to find a legal edge, there are 1000′s of studies that have been carried out on the safety and effectiveness of caffeine within sport, fitness and weight management, many crossfitters are now using caffeine to get more reps, faster times and lift more weight but it is important to note caffeine use has both pro’s and con’s that need to be considered before using it as a potential performance enhancing aid.




Positive Aspects of Caffeine

  • May encourage increased use of fat for fuel during exercise: caffeine causes adrenaline release and switches on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which helps to free up and burn fat, the benefit of this for crossfit is it may allow glycogen to be spared for the later end of training or event when we are pushing past the red line for the final couple of minutes.
  • May reduce perception of effort during exercise: making training feel easier at a relative intensity is a huge psychological boost, especially during longer EMOM’s / Met Con or mono-structural intervals.
  • May improve exercise endurance: The combination of the 2 above points leads to improved endurance which has been found repeatedly in research settings and carried over to real world event ranging in time frames and intensities.
  • May improve muscular strength: Due to its effect on the central nervous system (CNS) caffeine may help improve neural muscular recruit allowing bigger weights to be lifted.
  • May improve motivation to exercise. Caffeine causes the release of dopamine which acts on the reward and motivation regions on the brain.
  • Caffeine taken post training with carbs may promote increased levels of glycogen storage which could be useful on competition days when time between events is short and restoring depleted glycogen is important to allow high levels of performance across a full competition.

All these things can add up to lead to a noticeable improvement in athletic performance and this why caffeine is one of the key active ingredients in pre workout supplements

coffee 1

Negative Aspects of Caffeine

For some people however, caffeine can lead to some negative side effects, these are related to a person’s ability to metabolise caffeine (effecting how long it stays in the body for) or how sensitive they are to a specific dosage.

  • Caffeine acts on the CNS, this is what in part provides the positive effects by switching on the ‘Fight and flight: Sympathetic Nervous System’ branch of the CNS, but by doing this it will also shut down the ‘Rest and Digest: Parasympathetic Nervous System’ branch of the CNS. For some sensitive to caffeine this can cause the following issues
  • Spikes in heart rate: Potential issues with red lining at a slightly lower speed or intensity, more of an issue during short, fast met cons.
  • Cotton mouth: Salivary product is controlled by the PNS, hence caffeine can shut this down, Trying to Met Con / 2km Row with cotton mouth isn’t fun
  • Potential issues with grip: Caffeine causes vaso-constriction of the blood vessels, which can limit blood flow to the working muscles, this can be a nightmare for high rep pull up bar or barbell movements (17.2 anyone?)
  • The need to spend more time practicing your ‘toilet squat’, Caffeine acts on the SNS which also controls how the smooth muscles of the small and large intestine contract, helping move food through the digestive track to the ‘finish line’, this is why some of the super high caffeine pre-workout supplements used in the bodybuilding world have the nick name ‘super-dump 250’
  • Sleep is controlled by the PNS, hence to much caffeine or caffeine taken to close to bed can cause issues with (1) Getting to sleep and (2) Preventing us from getting in the deep more restorative stages of sleep, so even if your one of those people that does think caffeine keeps you awake, its can still have a detrimental effect on sleep quality.
  • Caffeine isn’t fuel: This may seem a little contradictive to some of the points made regarding the positive aspects of caffeine and fat burning, but caffeine doesn’t provide us with energy, its helps us obtain more energy (loosely speaking) from the energy we already have available. A potential issue with chronic caffeine use is that people use it as a crutch to gain energy at times when they feel they have none, this could be because of poor nutritional intakes and athletes simply aren’t meeting the calorific requirements for their training volume or they have poor sleep habits and are tired as a result of poor sleep quantity and quality. Caffeine in these situations is a case of treating the symptom (tiredness, lack of energy) rather than the cause (lack of quality food and sleep). ‘Kratos RXd: Fuel’ aims to help provide energy via carbohydrates along with a sensible amount of caffeine, ensuring training is powered by its preferred energy source and not simply replying of excessive caffeine intake.
  • Caffeine can become addictive, caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed drugs, it is socially acceptable and readily available, but like all drugs is can lead to tolerance, meaning larger and larger doses are required to get the desired effect or ’buzz’, but caffeine is one of those drugs that has a ceiling of tolerance, meaning there is a threshold dosage after which no further intake will lead to additional  benefits, this is commonly seen when people get a buzz from 1 cup of coffee, after a while they no longer get that buzz from one cup, instead they need two. Before they know it they can have 4-5 cups of caffeine and still not feel ‘wired’. At this point the only way of re-establishing the effects is to abstain from caffeine for 3-4 weeks, which can cause withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigues and cravings for caffeine. High caffeine pre-workout supplements are notorious for this, leading to people double or triple scooping an already high caffeine product, this may lead to maintaining the positive aspects of caffeine but it also increases the adverse side effects of caffeine to.
  • Caffeine dependence. How many times have you heard people not ne-able to train or feel they have had a poor session if they haven’t had their pre training caffeine hit? This is  partly because of the points mentioned above, but it is also caused by a habit loop being formed

Have pre wod caffeine > Have a great session / hit a couple of PB’s > Association

The more this happens, the stronger then association becomes to the point where people feel they can’t have a good training session without the using caffeine before they train, if they do manage to train without it they feel the session was flat and not as sharp compared to a caffeine powered session.



Take Home Points

  • Before using caffeine pre training, decide whether it actually helps your performance as an individual or whether you simply take it out of habit. For some it may help performance, yet for others it has the potential in hinder it. Know which camp you’re in
  • Caffeine has the ability to improve strength, endurance, reduce perception of effort and training related pain while also improving the bodies ability to utilise fat for fuel. This can add up to improvements in performance for everything from a 1 rep max lift through to a marathon row.
  • For those sensitive to caffeine, the adverse effects of caffeine may occur at a relatively small dose, and although they are unlikely to cause long term harm, they may be uncomfortable at the time and lead to impaired performance.
  • If you do not regularly use caffeine pre training, don’t use it on a competition day if you are provided with free samples
  • Negative aspects of caffeine are mostly likely to occur when more caffeine is consumed than normal. The positive aspects of caffeine can be obtained with relatively small caffeine intakes (1 strong black coffee) approximately 30-60 minutes prior to the start of training.
  • If you are looking to reduce caffeine intake it is advisable to do so slowly to avoid withdrawal symptoms (headaches, lack of energy, mood swings, irritability). Switching from normal to half caf coffee, then from half caf to decaf coffee, or by swapping one of your regular cups of coffee during the day to decaf, then progressively having more decaf and less normal coffee could do this.

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