Caffeine and Performance

After talking with other coaches and athletes, it seems that caffeine is one of the most underrated and underutilized training aids in strength and conditioning.  This is surprising considering that the ergogenic benefits of caffeine supplementation are well documented in the literature. Caffeine is taken as a pre-activity supplement in order to enhance performance outputs during training or competition, and it is one of the only supplements used to increase performance for both aerobic and anaerobic activities (Baechle & Roger, 2008). It is one of the most widely available and affordable drugs in the world. As a result, competitive athletes and strength coaches may want to consider adding caffeine to their sports nutrition and supplementation recommendations in order to maximize the training, recovery and physiological adaptation processes.

Power, and Endurance

Caffeine contributes to performance enhancement on all portions of the power-endurance spectrum. There are several potential mechanisms at work but the most basic premise is that is that caffeine increases the strength of muscular contractions at the molecular level by facilitating the release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, thereby lowering the calcium threshold required for actin-myosin cross-briding (Nehlig, Daval, and Derby,1992).  This is vital, because the number of cross-bridges that are attached to actin filaments at any given time dictates the force production of a muscle (Baechle & Roger, 2008).  As a result, caffeine increases an athlete’s ability to produce force in both competition and training. Research has also shown that caffeine can increase the endurance capabilities during long-duration training or competition (Ganio, Klau, Casa, Armstrong, and Maresh, 2009).  This is because caffeine is thought to increase fat utilization, which spares muscle glycogen, the body’s primary and preferred fuel source for physical activity (Spriet  & Graham, n.d.).  This has the effect of delaying the onset of fatigue, allowing an athlete to train longer before exhaustion.


Alertness and Recovery

Caffeine can increase mental clarity and focus (McDaniel et al, 2010). This is because of caffeine’s properties as a stimulant, which has a direct effect on the central nervous system, increasing resistance to fatigue, alertness and focus.  This increased level of cognitive function can be helpful in both competition and training scenarios.  There is also research to suggest that taking caffeine post-training enhances recovery.  A study by Pedersen et al (2008) showed that caffeine enhances the replenishment of glycogen stores by 66% when caffeine was ingested with their meals post-exercise.   Further, a study by Hurley et al (2003) showed that caffeine may be effective at reducing perceived muscle soreness in the days following resistance training.  These cumulative effects contribute to an elevated state of readiness for subsequent training bouts.

Potential Side Effects

There are a number of potential side effects when supplementing with caffeine, though most can be managed with preventative measures.  The first concern is overstimulation.  If an athlete is unaccustomed to caffeine, they may experience symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness and insomnia due to the stimulatory effects of the drug (Baechle & Roger, 2008).  The second potential concern is that caffeine is a diuretic. As a result, there is a potential risk that excess or unaccustomed consumption may lead to dehydration, which would in turn increase the risk hydration-related performance issues.  The severity of this side effect is exacerbated in high-temperature environments, and adequate hydration in these situations is critical. Thirdly, caffeine may act as a laxative, and may cause gastro-intestinal discomfort or bowel movements (Baechle & Roger, 2008).   This may compound the diuretic effects, and further dehydrate the body. Fourth, caffeine is physiologically addictive (Baechle & Roger, 2008) and an athlete may experience withdrawal symptoms including sluggishness, irritability, and headaches.  Fifth, caffeine interferes and negatively affects the body’s ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, phosphate, potassium as well as A and B vitamins (Johnson, 2014).


To prevent adverse effects, it is recommended that athletes begin experimenting with caffeine supplementation in small doses, particularly if they do not regularly consume caffeine.   The generally recommended dosage in the literature is 3-9 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight (Spriet & Graham, n.d.), with greater adverse affects appearing in quantities exceeding 9 mg/kg (Baechle & Roger, 2008).  Caffeine should also be avoided late at night, so to avoid negatively affecting sleep quality.  Furthermore, athletes who are supplementing with caffeine should ensure they are adequately hydrated, and also administer their dose well in advance of training or competition to allow for time to use the restroom and allow for an uninterrupted training session or an undisturbed competition in case of a laxative reaction. Athletes may also consider consultations with sports nutritionists in order to ensure that the caffeine consumption is not negatively affecting performance by causing vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  Lastly, if an athlete is cycling off caffeine but is accustomed to the routine use of caffeine during training, they should reduce dosages gradually in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms, which may negatively affect performance.


In summation, the body of research in strength and conditioning shows that caffeine has an ergogenic effect that may increase speed, power, and endurance, as well as increase the rate recovery between training sessions.  While the mechanisms may be somewhat unclear, the potential benefits of caffeine use as a performance enhancer during training greatly outweigh any potential risks, which can be mitigated by smart and progressive administration of the drug.  As a result, strength coaches and athletes would be wise to take advantage of the potential training and adaptation enhancements that caffeine provides.

Poor training methodology: Altitude Masks

Another extremely poor training gimmick is the altitude/elevation training mask. Elevation masks are worn with the intention of restricting airflow during exercise in order to train the respiratory system. Here is the marketing claim from one company that produces these masks: “It’s really simple science. By conditioning your lungs and creating pulmonary resistance, your diaphragm is strengthened, thereby making your lungs work harder. When lungs work harder, the surface area and elasticity in the alveoli is increased, thus increasing your stamina and ability to go harder at your sport.” However, young athletes should not buy into the marketing schemes of one of the worst training tools that you can purchase.

How does altitude training work?

Regardless of the altitude, the percentage of oxygen in the air remains constant at 21%. However, as altitude increases above sea level, the ambient atmospheric pressure decreases, resulting in less oxygen being readily available to be absorbed into the blood. To cope with this decrease in oxygen, the body experiences a number of physiological changes in order to adapt.  Acute changes in the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems include an increased ventilation rate, as well as increased cardiac output. Simply put, this means that both the heart and respiratory system work harder in order to deliver more oxygen throughout the body. The biggest physiological change that improves performance, however, is hematological; the body creates more red blood cells, which allows more oxygen to be carried. These physiological changes that occur in response to low oxygen environments are collectively referred to as acclimatization, and this is the primary reason why some endurance athletes participate in blood doping.  In blood doping, blood is extracted from the body, stored, and then reintroduced at a later date in order to increase the red blood cell count, allowing more oxygen to be delivered, which can increase VO2 max and in turn, endurance and performance.

Why don’t altitude masks work?

Elevation masks attempt to mimic the training environment that occurs when elite athletes train at high altitudes in preparation for a competition, but it is clear that they are way off base when it comes to science. Firstly, it typically takes weeks of living at altitude in order to properly acclimatize.  Strapping on a mask for an hour-long workout a couple times per week is not going to cut it.

Secondly, wearing an altitude mask does not change the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere, and therefore the body does not have a reason to acclimatize and produce more red blood cells.  All it accomplishes is that it makes it more difficult to breathe. Some may claim that this strengthens the diaphragm, which would in turn increase performance. However, the respiratory system is very rarely a performance limiter, as normal blood oxygen saturation levels are typically 95-100%.  Instead, VO2 max and endurance performance is affected by the ability to deliver oxygen (e.g. cardiac output / stroke volume), and the ability to extract oxygen (e.g. hemoglobin count, capillary density).

Lastly, the gold standard of altitude training involves living high and training low.  That means athletes live at a high altitudes (or in altitude tents) in order to acclimatize, but then travel to sea level to train.  This is because training quality decreases in low oxygen environments, and you always want training quality to remain high.  If training quality decreases, there is a diminished stimulus that may not produce an optimal adaptation/supercompensation response.


In conclusion, altitude training masks are one of the worst training tools you can use. Essentially, you receive none of the benefits of training at high altitude, but all of the drawbacks. The body does not acclimatize to increase the oxygen carrying capabilities of the blood, and training quality suffers and you can’t train as hard because you’re wearing a silly looking mask on your face. Interestingly, the effectiveness of properly administered altitude training is still questionable. In one of the best double-blind, placebo-controlled research studies conducted on altitude training, Siebenmann et al. (2012) concluded that there was no difference in performance when a live high, train low protocol was administered.  As a result, speed/power team sport athletes would be better off working on aspects that make a difference in their respective sports, namely speed, power and skill.

LeBron James was shown using a training mask in preparation for the second round of this year’s NBA playoffs. However, just because the best basketball player on the planet uses them doesn’t mean that you should too. After all, LeBron has a track record making poor training decisions, like when he chose to follow the Paleo diet  and  balance on exercise balls in the off-season, resulting in him losing a significant amount of muscle mass, strength and power, and having a very slow (pun intended) start to his season.

Save yourself the embarrassment and leave the masks to comic books.


Poor Training Methodology: Agility Ladders

One of the most popular training gimmicks in strength and conditioning are agility ladders, also sometimes referred to as speed ladders.  For clarity, agility can be defined as the ability to rapidly change directions, while speed simply refers to the ability for an athlete to travel at maximal velocities.  Speed and agility are extremely important for success in team sports, and therefore care should be taken when attempting to develop each quality.

Speed and agility are closely related insofar as they are both affected by the athlete’s ability to apply force. Top speed is determined by the ability to apply force to the ground in a manner that maximizes stride length and frequency, whereas agility is determined by the ability to apply force in order to decelerate the body,  redirect momentum, and re-accelerate explosively at a different angle.  When high ground reaction forces are effectively applied, rate of force development increases and ground contact times decrease.  In layman’s terms, this means that the athlete is applying more force to the ground in a shorter amount of time, which is the key to being explosive.


What factors affect speed/agility?

Speed and agility are affected by a number of interrelated physical characteristics, none of which are more important than lower body strength. Concentric lower body strength acts as a motor that allows athletes to powerfully extend the hips and legs in order to apply force to the ground and accelerate quickly to high velocity.  Conversely, eccentric lower body strength acts as a braking mechanism that decelerates the body in order to control and redirect momentum in sharp changes of direction.  In support, a study by Chaouachi et al. (2009) showed that 1RM squat performance was the best predictor of 5-10 metre sprint ability, while a study by Spiteri et al. (2014) showed that eccentric strength in particular correlated significantly with COD ability.  Other important factors that contribute to speed and agility include inter- and intramuscular coordination, the elastic properties of muscles and tendons,  reaction time, flexibility, balance and body composition, all of which can be improved by utilizing proper strength and conditioning methods.


Why are agility ladders poor?

A video of a fancy footwork drill from Cleveland Brown’s WR Andrew Hawkins recentlywent viral on social media.  Ladder drills may look cool on YouTube, and may be fun to perform, but young athletes should know that these drills have extremely little transferto actual sport performance. The issue with agility ladders is that very little acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction occurs. Rather, athletes repetitively perform predetermined footwork patterns at a constant speed in the same direction and plane of movement. Moreover, ladder drills often cause athletes to tighten up their muscles, which is the last thing you want to do when attempting to run or move fast.  Lastly, athletes often perform ladder drills with the head and eyes down, which is generally not how you want athletes to move tactically on the playing field.


How do you improve speed/agility?

To improve speed and agility, athletes would be better off performing exercises such as Olympic lift variations (e.g. power cleans, hang snatches, and high pulls) as well as squat and deadlift variations at heavy loads (85+% 1RM), which would develop hip and leg musculature and increase an athlete’s ability to apply force to the ground.  Furthermore, athletes won’t get faster if they don’t practice running at high velocities.  High velocity running is a skill, and therefore sprinting drills should be incorporated to refine technique, while accelerations from different start positions to varying distances should be use to practice joint angles for optimal speed development. Finally, plyometric drills such as box jumps, depth jumps, and hurdle hops should be incorporated in aprogressive and safe manner in order to increase joint stiffness, which allows the athlete to bounce off the ground with more elasticity through each step.  This, coupled with appropriate sport practice should be adequate enough to increase performance in speed/agility tasks.



Overall, ladder drills are a poor tool for optimal speed and agility development.  While novice athletes may experience a training effect from their use, it is important to note that ANY training stimulus will produce results in untrained athletes.  Therefore, if an athlete reports feeling faster or more agile after using a ladder, they were likely poorly trained to begin with.  While ladder drills may look cool and fun for athletes to perform, we should be striving to use methods that contribute to the optimal development of high performance athletes, rather than mediocre development of average athletes.

If ladder drills actually transferred to sport performance, wide receiver patterns might look more like this instead of what we actually see occur in the NFL.  This parody clip also went viral on social media, but for the right reasons; reputable strength and conditioning coaches were laughing at and frowning upon poor training practices that do not benefit athletes.

Don’t be the next viral joke of the internet, and stop using agility ladders for speed, agility, and explosiveness.




Poor training methodology: Over-conditioning

One of the poorest trends in strength and conditioning for team sports is an over-emphasis on cardiovascular conditioning.  Speaking from experience, this mindset is most prevalent in ice-hockey and swimming, where “dry land training” is synonymous with “let’s kick the crap out of our athletes”. However, this is also beginning to make its way into other major sports like basketball and football, where speed and power should be the main emphasis once an adequate cardiovascular base has been developed.

Hard conditioning workouts that are often branded as “high intensity” are often actually medium/low intensity, and very poor in quality. Trainers and coaches that subscribe to this mindset of training tend to believe that administering an extremely fatiguing and exhausting workout will make their athletes “mentally tough”, with some coaches even taking pride in causing their athletes to vomit. They believe this equates to athletes “putting in work”, but little do the athletes know that this “work” is of extremely poor quality, and it’s very likely that it is making them slower, weaker, and less powerful, not to mention miserable during the actual training session.


How much conditioning is needed?

The amount of conditioning that one has in their training program is determined by a number of factors including the needs of the sport, the player’s position, tactical style of play, and the current strengths and weaknesses of the athlete.  For example, American football and volleyball players require relatively less conditioning overall due to the amount of ground covered, and the short duration of each play sequence.  In contrast, soccer and basketball players would place a greater emphasis on cardiovascular fitness due to the more continuous game play and repeated sprint ability requirements. Generally, it can be summarized that an athlete has a sufficient cardiovascular foundation when they are able to maintain performance for the duration of their game or event. After this base of fitness is established, it would be prudent to shift one’s focus on other aspects of performance.


Why are “hard workouts” counter-productive?

High-intensity anaerobic activity lasting 0-10 seconds is powered primarily via the phosphagen anaerobic pathway (alactic), which is responsible for explosive, high force/power movements such as sprinting, jumping, and cutting. As high intensity activity exceeds 10 seconds, energy production switches to the glycolytic system (lactic), which powers high intensity efforts lasting up to approximately two minutes. Lastly, the oxidative system is primarily responsible for exercise durations greater than two minutes. While slow to initiate relative to anaerobic systems, the oxidative system is primarily fuelled by fats and provides the highest amount of sustainable energy during exercise.

The most important energy system with regards to speed and power sports such as basketball, football, and hockey is the phosphagen system.  LeBron James, Marshawn Lynch, and Patrick Kane are game breakers, not because of their conditioning, but because of their explosiveness and ability to power away from (or through) their defenders.  The phosphagen system is trained by working on exercises such as sprinting, plyometrics, and weightlifting while adhering to proper work-to-rest ratios. The work-to-rest ratio for speed and power development is typically 1:5.  That is, for every one minute of work, athletes should take 5 minutes of complete rest before starting their next set. This ensures that the quality of work remains high and speed/power is maximally developed.

Contrarily, when coaches push athletes through fatiguing workouts (think repeated hill sprints, suicides, repeated dunks/rim touches, and bag skates) this work-to-rest ratio is diminished and energy production shifts to the other energy systems (work-to-rest ratios for the glycolytic and aerobic systems are typically 1:2 and 1:1, respectively).  This ultimately hurts the speed/power athlete because of interference. The principle of interference occurs when the development of competing physical attributes, such as strength and endurance, prevents each quality from being developed optimally.  As a result, the adaptations gained from hard conditioning workouts develop the endurance-related pathways, but will ultimately hinder the development of the phosphagen system, making athletes weaker and slower.


In conclusion, while conditioning  is certainly an important aspect of performance, athletes are usually conditioned adequately by practicing/playing their sport under normal conditions.  As a result, athletes and their parents should be wary of coaches whose workouts revolve around hard conditioning drills and “mental toughness.”  While athletes may not always be able to choose their sport coaches in school, they should exercise caution when choosing private clubs or trainers, and ensure that they are receiving valuable training that contributes to the long-term development of the athlete. Just because a training session is “hard”, doesn’t mean it is productive, and often times the opposite is true; if a training session feels extremely taxing, it usually means the quality of training is poor, and both time and money would be better spent elsewhere.

Here are a few examples of a basketball workouthockey workout, and football workout that we found quickly on YouTube.  There is lots of yelling going on, but very little quality.  While this style of training might be okay for an athlete who needs to get in shape (still, there are much better methods for developing cardiovascular fitness than this), it would definitely have a negative impact their explosiveness.

There is a running joke between several of my strength and conditioning colleagues that depicts an incompetent coach yelling, “FOURTH QUARTER! FOURTH QUARTER!” while his athletes move through a conditioning drill or exercise at a snail’s pace with a puke bucket nearby just in case “weakness decides to leave the body.”  However, that’s not weakness leaving the body; it’s your strength, power, and explosiveness.