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As scientific debate continues to percolate about whether or not caffeine should be banned in sports, many athletes will be using it to boost their performance. The current issue of Clinical Evidence reports that athletes in elite sports – like Olympic level competition, consistently use caffeine before sporting events because they believe that it enhances performance. And it’s perfectly legal – the World Anti-Doping Agency removed caffeine from its list of banned substances in 2004, and Olympic athletes will not be tested or penalized for using caffeine during the games.
An Australian sports physician based in Melbourne says that monitoring in Australia shows that there has been an increased use of caffeine for performance boosting since WADA removed it from their list of prohibited substances.
Does caffeine really improve performance in sports? Repeated studies over the years show that it definitely does. Caffeine is a stimulant. It makes you more alert, offsets fatigue, increases stamina, increases your blood pressure and increases your heart rate. These are all good things when it comes to athletic performance. Dr. Larkins, once an Olympic athlete himself, says that there’s a healthy percentage of athletes exploiting the fact that caffeine is off the ban list to get a performance advantage over their fellow competitors.
Why did WADA change their stance on caffeine?
Before 2004, Olympic athletes were banned if tests for caffeine came back positive. At the last summer Olympics, an Olympic athlete was in offense of WADA rules if an athlete returned tests with a caffeine concentration of more than 12 micrograms per millilitre of urine.
However, a spokesperson for WADA said that there is research evidence that caffeine concentrations higher than that threshold actually decreases performance. Reducing the threshold, however, might create the risk of banning athletes who merely consume ‘social amounts’ of caffeine – a cup of coffee after dinner, or a chocolate bar here and there.
In addition, people metabolize caffeine at very different rates, so two athletes might consume the same amount of caffeine at the same times, and one would test above threshold and one not meet it.
The Controversy Continues
Professor John Hawley of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s exercise metabolism research group says that there’s no doubt about caffeine’s performance enhancing qualities. But, he points out, it’s not a universal benefit. In sports that require a steady hand, for instance, caffeine could be a detriment.
His research suggests that caffeine helps athletes to recover more quickly after strenuous exercise because it increases muscle stores of glycogen. That’s an extremely valuable benefit to athletes who need to recover between heats in sports like swimming, athletics or judo.
Dr. Larkins and Professor Hawley have different views on whether or not caffeine should be banned. Larkins believes that rather than removing caffeine from the ban list, the should have commissioned more research to distinguish between social and doping use of caffeine. Hawley believes it should never have been on the ban list in the first place.
Larkins says that in the first year after caffeine came off the WADA list, athletes were returning levels of up to 50 micrograms of caffeine per millilitre on their urine test. That’s clearly above one or two cups of coffee before an event, he says. He believes that athletes should not be using caffeine on the day of their performance.
WADA’s only comment on the issue is this:
“Any report of potential abuse by athletes seeking to enhance their performance is of concern to WADA and will be further investigated as part of the annual update of the List.”