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Gene in Focus – ACEJuly 30, 2016
Coffee is one of the most widely consumed drinks in the world, mostly because of one ingredient – caffeine. When we’re feeling tired, we often reach for the coffee pot, and that’s because caffeine has the ability to wake us up, making Monday morning slightly more tolerable. This fact has not been lost on sports people, who for years have been using caffeine in the hope that it can improve their sporting performance. But is this actually the case?
The short answer is a resounding yes; caffeine really can improve performance, and there are a host of research articles showing this. Time and time again the research shows that caffeine can improve muscular endurance, performance in intense activities, and also performance in endurance activities. The typical amount of caffeine that is recommended from research like this is somewhere between 3-6mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight; so, for a typical 80kg male this would be somewhere between 240mg and 480mg. 240mg of caffeine is the equivalent of around 2-3 cups of coffee, and three cans of energy drink – not a small amount at all!
The next thing to consider is how caffeine creates these positive effects. Here the research is a bit less clear, although there are a few mechanisms which have been put forward with plenty of support. The first of these is that caffeine might make it easier for us to burn fat, and in endurance events fat is the main source of fuel. One way caffeine does this is by increasing the use of free fatty acids as a fuel. Another idea put forward by researchers is that caffeine causes an increase in adrenaline, which in turn can improve performance. Caffeine also appears to act on the brain, making exercise feel easier, which in turn means that athletes are able to keep going for longer. A final potential mechanism is that caffeine competes with something called adenosine. Adenosine causes muscles to relax and can cause the nervous system to slow down, making us sleepy and relaxed. Caffeine can out-compete adenosine to join with its receptors, making us less susceptible to the effects of caffeine. However, the exact reason why caffeine can improve sporting performance is not always clear, and it is likely to be down to a number of factors. Interestingly, however, caffeine from coffee appears to be less effective than caffeine from other sources, which is why a lot of athletes don’t use coffee for their pre-race caffeine boost.
One thing that is interesting from the research is that caffeine doesn’t affect everyone to the same extent. In some people, caffeine really does improve performance, and can have a large effect. However, in other people this effect can be much smaller, and in some cases caffeine actually makes performance worse. One factor that might play a role here is our genes. There is a gene called CYP1A2, which creates an enzyme responsible for the metabolisation of caffeine. Different people have different versions of this gene, which can make this enzyme work faster or slower. Research in this area is very new, and there are less than a handful of studies. However, the most well known of these studies, from 2012, found that caffeine improved endurance exercise performance to a greater extent in fast metabolisers of caffeine than slow metabolisers. This goes some way to explaining why some people find caffeine improves their performance, and others don’t – hopefully more research in the future will be able to give us a better answer.