Caffeine, the active ingredient in coffee, is the number one performance enhancing substance for the general public and athletes alike. Eric Hörst explains what effects coffee or caffeine consumption has on climbing.

A guest post by Eric Hörst from Training for Climbing

It's the well-documented effects of caffeine on the central nervous system that will help you wake up better in the morning, focus better at school or at work, and become more productive in the gym.

But there are other ways than caffeine to get you training and climbing harder, and some unwanted side effects that you should be aware of.

How to increase caffeine in coffee your performance

Here are the main performance enhancing effects of caffeine, as summarized in an excellent meta-analysis research paper by Bülent Sökmem (2008):

  • Improvement in concentration, alertness and mood, especially in over-tired athletes.
  • Improved response time and improved accuracy in rehearsed movements.
  • Reduction of peripheral pain perception and perceived effort.
  • Increased work performance and time to exhaustion with predominantly aerobic endurance training (eg endurance routes and multi-pitches - climbing).
  • Higher power output and isokinetic force at maximum force and power output lasting less than 10 seconds (eg a short, extreme boulder problem, campus board training, one-arm pull-ups).

Considering these cognitive and physiological effects, it is not surprising that so many climbers consume caffeine not only in the morning, but also in the climbing gym or on the rock.

 

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Curse and blessing at the same time - a question of the amount

Despite the benefits mentioned above, it is important to be cautious about caffeine intake that you do not develop a "more-is-better" mentality. There are some potential negative effects to consider.

  • High doses can make you shivery and nervous - not ideal for tricky, technical climbing (requires fine motor skills) or before competition.
  • High doses can cause a general mood disorder, such as gastrointestinal discomfort, headache, and perhaps even heart palpitations.
  • Given the half-life of 4 to 6 hours of caffeine, consuming it in the afternoon or evening can lead to insomnia or restless sleep (thus, negatively impacting your recovery and your performance the next day).
  • It has been shown that high doses of caffeine lower blood pH (more acidic). Therefore, this may negatively impact high-intensity activities based on the glycolytic energy system (eg, a long bouldering problem or a short pumping sport climbing tour).

How much caffeine is good, how much bad?

So, how much caffeine should you consume for a performance benefit? In the end, it depends on your tolerance to this drug, which is relative to your daily consumption. In the research literature, dosages between 3 and 13 mg caffeine per kilogram of body weight, low to moderate doses of 3 to 9 mg per kg appear to be optimal (most benefits with the least negative side effects). For a mid-range climber, this is equivalent to something between 200 mg and 600 mg caffeine - Use the lower end of this range if you're a "newbie" caffeine and the upper end of the dosage if you're a regular bulk consumer. See the table below for the approximate caffeine content of known beverages.

You can overdo it

Adjust the amount of caffeine tactically

Bottom line: Using caffeine can potentially improve your training and climbing performance, but overdosing it is likely to worsen your performance. The key is to experiment and understand the unique effects caffeine has on you personally. Ideally, you'll learn to plan your caffeine dose so that you get the best performance-enhancing effects from a moderate dose - this means keeping the daily dose low in the days leading up to a project or competition, and then on the day of the event return to your "normal" dose. This is a superior approach to doubling your caffeine dose on the day of performance, but not risking the negative side effects listed above.

So much caffeine is in these drinks

Product Portion (oz.) Caffeine (mg)
Coke (Coke, Pepsi, Ale 8-1) 12 30 – 40
Tea 8 25 – 50
Mountain Dew 12 54
Red Bull 8.5 80
Monster Energy Drink 16 160
Rockstar energy drink 16 160
Coffee "weak" (McDonalds) 16 160
5-Hour Energy Drink 2 200
Anhydrous Caffeine (No-Doze, Vivarin) 1 tablet 200
Coffee "strong" (Starbucks, Caribou) 16 300

 

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Credits: Picture and Text Eric Hörst - Training for Climbing, translation by Christoph Völker from target10a, Gif of Giphy

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