Today, more than ever, athletes are bombarded with products that are marketed to increase performance, endurance and overall athletic ability. The question is, how many of these products actually work? And are they safe or are they doing more harm than good? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fighters at the gym or in preparation for a fight who are downing a Monster or Red Bull, thinking it is going to improve their performance. For one, all of these drinks have an incredibly high amount of sugar that are quickly going to be metabolized as fuel only to later cause a slump in energy or a “crash.” They are also highly detrimental for a fighter who is trying to make weight. All of the additional artificial flavors and colorings are a definite no-no. However, there is one other common ingredient in most sports drinks that is somewhat controversial, but potentially does have psychological and physical effects that could hold some benefits?
Some may argue that Caffeine is a drug and they wouldn’t be far off base. Yep, like a drug, it has a artificially-stimulating affect on your mind and body. In fact, up until 2004 it was considered a “banned substance” by the Olympic committee, due to its ergogenic effects. However, the ban was lifted because of its widespread use and because it only showed to provide a small benefit. If an organization as large and well-respected as the Olympics ban a substance, it can’t help but raise a few questions.
Most non-athletes and average consumers consider caffeine harmless. This is obvious, given that 9 out of every 10 adults consume caffeine, approximately 238 mg — averaging about 2-3 cups of coffee per day. Not only in coffee, but it’s also in tea, chocolate, kola nuts, soda and even many sports drinks.
1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, aka caffeine, has a number of effects on the human body. It impacts the kidneys, the muscles, hormones, metabolism, respiratory, plus your cardiovascular and central nervous system. In the simplest terms, caffeine works like this; Upon it’s consumption, caffeine goes to work on our brain. In each of our bodies we contain a chemical in our brain called Adenosine. Adenosine affects the nerve cells by slowing them down, resulting in a calming effect. When we ingest caffeine it works against this, actually doing the opposite and speeding up nerve cell activity. This is why we experience an increase in alertness, energy, improved mood and are better able to concentrate. There have yet to be any conclusive studies that point to one singular reason as to how caffeine increases sports performance, but, considering the obvious, immediate response that most people get from it, common sense would tell you that it could positively affect nearly any activity you were engaged in…except sleeping, of course. Whether it helps you actually perform better without some short term or long term negative side affects is still somewhat questionable.
Okay, so now you’re feeling tired or “in a slump” after a long day at work. It’s time to hit the gym and a double espresso sounds really good and like it will hit the spot. The problem is, there are a number of negative side effects that caffeine can cause. I already gave you a hint, but the first one is no secret, it’s insomnia and restlessness. For anyone who has trouble sleeping in the first place, caffeine is only going to make it worse, but further stimulating the central nervous system. You could be trading a temporary burst of energy for a lack of sleep, leading to less energy to perform the next day. Then you get into a vicious cycle of always needing that performance-booster before you work out or compete. Headaches and nervousness are also a common reaction to caffeine, for the exact same reasons. For those fighters who already battle with ”pre-fight jitters,” caffeine is only going to make it a lot worse. It elevates your heart-rate and blood pressure and that can be additionally problematic for some. Although some of these are the exact same “symptoms” and mimics your body’s natural response in preparation to fight, it doesn’t seem like being in a constant state of “fight or flight” is healthy. Caffeine also has diuretic properties for some people and that causes you to lose fluid much faster than you normally would, or should. This makes it easier to get dehydrated, so if your gym is super hot, it might not be best to fill your water bottle with Starbucks.
Having said all of this, everybody is different and your body may react to caffeine in any variety of ways. I’ve personally talked with boxers who hate some of the reactions they get. They consider the racing of their hearts and jitteriness they get from caffeine a handicap. Being on edge doesn’t allow them to relax or think clearly. Others feel like the taste, enjoyment and feeling they get from a pre-workout energy drink is worth any negative aspects.
Honestly, I don’t subscribe to one hard-and-fast school of thought, because it’s clearly subjective.You can’t say one thing is totally good or all bad for everyone just because of the way it affects some people. Most fighters are always on the lookout for that special training secret, that perfect diet or supplement. They are in constant pursuit of gaining that edge. For some fighters, that is part of the thrill of the hunt. That’s really the ultimate benefit to all fighters…the pursuit of self-excellence. Being on the constant lookout for what can help to improve you as a fighter is a worthy goal, because you are the one in the ring. You are the one fighting the good fight. So whether you are someone who likes your double-tall latte with a punch in the nose or prefer to be caffeine-free, just consider the facts. It’s about doing what works for you, but knowing the short term and long term side-effects. If you want to be in boxing for the long haul, do what’s best for your body now and in the future. That may mean keeping that Monster hiding under your bed at bay or letting the Red Bull out of the gates before you step in the ring. In this case, using caffeine really comes down to your personal experience and taste. But, at the end of the day, if you’re still unsure, you know you can always stick with the good ole’, never-fail standby…WATER. Tastes great, less filling and always caffeine-free.