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CrossFit on Caffeine

In recent years, caffeine culture and CrossFit have become inextricably linked. There are even clothing brands dedicated to this seemingly disparate combination. To trace the roots of this combo, we have to go back to times even before CrossFit was founded: the 1970’s. It was in this decade that scientists began to study the effects of caffeine on athletic performance.

“Perhaps the most significant performance enhancement due to caffeine comes from the widely documented decrease in rate of perceived exertion, allowing us to perform at a higher intensity.”

Before we get into the discussion of how caffeine affects our performance and overall health, we must first acknowledge the fact that by all realms of classification, caffeine is a drug, and one of the most widely consumed drugs in the world. Caffeine acts as a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, antagonizing or “blocking” adenosine receptors. This increases the release of certain neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and norepinephrine, which are key players in energizing our bodies. Because of these dramatic effects on the CNS, caffeine was even included in the list of prohibited substances by the World Anti-Doping Agency until 2004.

With that being said, it has become clear that caffeine does in fact have performance enhancing benefits. The stimulant moderately increases blood pressure and heart rate, essentially acting as a “primer” for the body when consumed before exercise. However, perhaps the most significant performance enhancement due to caffeine comes from the widely documented decrease in rate of perceived exertion, allowing us to perform at a higher intensity.

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Another noteworthy effect is decreased fatigue as well as delayed onset of fatigue. These effects led early researchers to look almost exclusively at the connection between endurance performance and caffeine intake, and it has long been accepted that caffeine provides a slight – but statistically significant – improvement in endurance performance. More recently however, researchers have started to look at how caffeine effects shorter duration events like weightlifting and sprinting. Although the evidence is not yet conclusive, small improvements in lower body strength and overall power have been seen in some studies. The mechanisms behind these adaptations are not as thoroughly understood, but could be due to the fact that strength is highly correlated to central nervous system function.

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While all these performance effects might have you wanting to chug coffee ASAP, like any supplement, or really anything we consume at all, it’s important to consider the health effects outside of the gym. Since it is a drug, chronic ingestion of caffeine can lead to tolerance, meaning we might need consistently higher dosages to induce the same effects. Too much caffeine can also produce nervousness, restlessness, headache, gastrointestinal problems, and tremors. Also keep in mind that because caffeine increases alertness, it does have the potential to reduce sleep quality if consumed too close to bedtime (usually within 5 or 6 hours).

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I’d also like to take a second to recognize that not all sources of caffeine are created equally. Energy drinks often contain a large amount of sugar, and adding creamer to coffee adds fat and calories that we might not remember to take into account, so caffeinate wisely. According to nearly all nutrition experts, caffeine can be part of a healthy diet, but as always, listen to your body and fuel it as necessary to feel your best in the gym and in life.

–Jay Alexander