Paddle Healthy: The Pros and Cons of Caffeine

Photo: Erik Aeder

Photo: Erik Aeder

Paddle Healthy: The Pros and Cons of Caffeine

With energy drink marketing increasing its reach, the continued spread of Starbucks and the rise of craft coffee houses (complete with bearded baristas), our culture has become more caffeinated than ever before. So, is all this caffeine good for us, or are we drinking too much as recent investigations into deaths that may be caffeine related suggest? What are the performance benefits of our favorite natural stimulant, and what are the pitfalls? Is naturally derived caffeine better than the stuff cooked up in a lab? We’re going to do our best to answer these questions.

Photo: Mike Tavares

Photo: Mike Tavares

The Benefits of Brewing Another Cup

The good news is that in moderate quantities, caffeine can help your paddling and recovery. Caffeine is one of the most highly researched exercise aids, so there’s a ton of useful data on how it positively impacts sports performance if not consumed in excess. Ingesting a moderate amount of caffeine before exercise has been shown to increase endurance for workouts lasting an hour or longer by slowing glycogen (stored carbs) depletion and encouraging the body to burn fat, leaving more glycogen for later. In addition, nutritional scientists at the University of Illinois found that caffeine also decreases exercise-related anxiety, which may dull pain perception and so further boost endurance.

For river-running standup paddler and kayaker Haley Mills, pre-race caffeine is a must. “I sometimes have multiple events in a weekend and drinking espresso before each one helps me feel more aggressive on the water and focused on the tricks I’m doing,” she says. “I have poor circulation in my hands and feet and when I drink coffee I feel there’s more blood flow to those areas, which helps me stay warmer.”

And the benefits aren’t limited to during exercise. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology proved that when consumed with a carb-rich post workout snack, smoothie or meal, caffeine can help restore the glycogen lost during physical activity. So don’t second guess having that second Americano of the day after you hit the water, as long as you’re combining it with the right 3:1 mix of carbs and a fast-acting protein such as whey.

Naturally derived caffeine comes from various sources, which typically have additional health perks. Coffee has been shown to prevent macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s, while black tea reduces inflammation and exercise-related soreness, and green tea takes down free radicals, enhances brain function and promotes fat burning.

Photo: Aaron Schmidt

Photo: Aaron Schmidt

Caffeine Concerns

Despite the science behind using caffeine as an ergogenic performance aid, it’s possible to misuse and abuse it to the detriment of your health. Common results from overconsumption include stomachache, sickness and diarrhea, headaches, nervousness/anxiety, acid reflux, and racing/irregular heartbeat.

While java junkies can certainly get a dodgy stomach from one too many refills, much of the concern surrounding excess caffeine centers on so-called “energy drinks” and shots. For people who don’t like the taste of coffee or tea, such drinks can seem like a legitimate alternative. And, with millions of marketing dollars poured into making the connection between extreme sports and energy drinks, caffeine-in-a-can products are expected to soar to $21 billion in annual revenue by 2017.

So are energy drinks worse for you than natural caffeine options? Not always, but many contain high quantities of sugar and artificial sweeteners, colors, and preservatives. As ever, if you can’t pronounce an ingredient or don’t know what the heck it is, it’s probably best to steer clear.

Part of the issue is that the small size of energy “shots” is deceptive. Some people think because the container is diminutive it doesn’t contain much caffeine, so they can just pound back several in one go. This assumption is wrong and, according to certain reports, it may be dead wrong, as a single energy shot can contain as much caffeine as a medium coffee. Would you line up six coffees and drink them all? Probably not–especially if they had a bunch of synthetic junk in them.

Another issue is that synthetic caffeine often found in energy drinks and shots is made in a lab using a wide range of substances that include petroleum and urea (a component of urine—we know, gross!) Some experts argue that synthetic caffeine is absorbed more quickly, leading to a quicker caffeine ‘high’ and sharper ‘crash’ that may aggravate underlying health issues. While the jury is still out on the effects of energy drinks, we advise sticking to natural caffeine sources, just to play it safe.

Photo: Harry Wiewel

Photo: Harry Wiewel

How Much Do You Need And When?

Many studies suggest that optimal caffeine before a workout is 0.5 to 1.5 mg of caffeine per pound of bodyweight. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, you’d need between 70 and 210 milligrams of caffeine in the hours leading up to training or a race, and the same afterwards with your post-exercise nutrition. According to Caffeine Informer, that’s the equivalent of between one and three espresso shots, or somewhere between one small and two large cups of coffee.

Though such a recommendation is based on experiments conducted with endurance athletes, everyone’s body is different. Our advice is to play around with how much caffeine you need, using the minimum needed to make a difference. Also, try occasionally going caffeine free for a few days so your body’s dependence on it doesn’t blunt caffeine’s positive effects. –Phil White

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  • Maui Coffee Gal

    Always sensed that caffeine+food after exercise was a necessity, not just before.
    Will add this article to our research – good one –

    Here are some more things to do AFTER having a cup of coffee; some counterintuitive!
    http://www.mauiupcountry.coffee/blogs/coffeetalk/15211917

  • http://www.ameribev.org/ American Beverage Association

    As this article acknowledges, caffeine is a safe ingredient, and can be enjoyed in moderation. With respect to energy drinks, it’s important to note that most mainstream varieties have about half as much caffeine as a similarly sized cup of coffeehouse coffee. Also, a number of the other ingredients found in energy drinks occur naturally and in other foods that we enjoy regularly. For instance, taurine is an amino acid found naturally in the human body, as well as in common food items such as seafood, scallops and poultry. In sum, energy beverages are approved for consumption, and have been safely enjoyed for nearly three decades around the globe.
    -American Beverage Association

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