By Scott Littlefield MS, CN, CISSN
That extra cup of coffee, scoop of pre-workout, or energy shot could derail your baseball career.
One, caffeine is technically a banned substance by the NCAA. Two, the jitters, anxiety, and stomach upset it can cause in some players is not what you want as you stand in the box down by one with a runner on 3rd.
Why then do so many players use caffeine from high school to the MLB? In low to moderate doses – 200 to 300 milligrams, or the amount found in about 2 cups of coffee – caffeine can help you train harder and focus better… and also will not trigger a positive drug test since the NCAA only penalizes exceedingly high urinary caffeine concentrations (achieved by 5 or more cups of coffee).
When it comes to caffeine, there is a fine line between performance benefit and detriment. For many, it can be a strong performance aid, but it comes down to the individual as well as how much, when, and how you get it.
One of the ways that caffeine works is by competitive inhibition of adenosine receptors in the brain that influence perceptions of fatigue. In other words, caffeine can increase your fatigue threshold, allowing you to work harder for longer. That means faster gains from strength and speed training, and stronger swings or pitches late in games.
Caffeine is widely consumed for its ability to enhance concentration and alertness, which is why so many tired parents rely on that cup of coffee to get through their morning at work. These same effects may help improve play during games when the abilities to concentrate and remain alert are crucial.
But, when players find themselves continually relying on caffeine just to get them through morning classes, workouts, practices or games, that is a strong indicator of inadequate sleep, poor sleep quality, or sub-optimal diet – all three of which drastically increase a players risk of injury and handicap his ability to perform and improve, no matter how much coffee he/she drinks.
In addition to masking underlying challenges for ball players, the effects of caffeine for some are not all good and may actually negate performance benefits. A few players report high levels of the jitters, agitation, anxiety and an upset stomach with caffeine or coffee ingestion. This is why we always have players test new nutrition protocols in practices as opposed to games and adjust as necessary.
Furthermore, exciting research to be published this year from researchers at the University of Toronto shows that your genes actually influence your response to caffeine. Depending on which of the three genotypes you have for the CYP1A2 enzyme that metabolizes caffeine, you may improve, reduce, or see no change in high intensity performance with caffeine ingestion.
The impacts of caffeine on performance depend on many factors, including timing, amount, form, diet, training, and genotype. A qualified nutritionist should monitor a ball player’s diet and supplements to support optimal health, safety, and performance.
For increasing feelings of energy and reducing fatigue, it’s best to get caffeine from 1-3 cups of coffee (iced coffee is a fine option, too). It should be ingested 15-60 minutes pre-exercise and be accounted for in your pre-exercise fuel plan. Consuming caffeine more than 3 times per week can reduce the beneficial effects as your body becomes more tolerant of it. Additionally, most players have trouble falling asleep if caffeine is ingested prior to afternoon or evening events.
Beware of energy drinks and caffeine supplements: in addition to being a quagmire for banned substances and harmful ingredients, they can contain additional food sources of caffeine that are not accounted for, which might be too much for you (or the NCAA).
Questions/comments can be sent to Scott@ViTLnutrition.com
Scott is a nutritionist at and co-founder of ViTL Nutrition – a nutrition counseling practice outside of Seattle, Washington. He works with athletes and teams to optimize performance by transforming the science of nutrition into individualized strategies and delicious foods. He is also the co-creator of the award-winning Baseball Nutrition Institute – an online and mobile nutrition system designed to empower elite ball players to take control of their performance without breaking the bank.