MMA Diet: Caffeine

Does caffeine impact sports performance? Absolutely.

“Most of us know caffeine as the stuff in coffee that gives us a morning boost. It’s estimated that 80% of us drink coffee regularly. But according to the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) caffeine is the world’s most commonly used drug, according to Vanderbilt University it is the “most inexpensive and readily available drug known to man,” many nutrition sites list coffee as the world’s most powerful and ingested antioxidant beverage and according to many athletic improvement sites it is considered the most widely studied aid to enhance physical performance.

“Athletes at all levels – including the Olympics – can be banned and even have their medals taken from them due to caffeine levels over the sport’s testing limit. Yes, caffeine, a substance most of us drink every morning, is on the list of banned “supplements” just like steroids and cocaine – but only if the urine test comes back at 12mg/L (basically 8 cups of traditional coffee, depending on body size). A “moderate” amount is generally considered 250mg/day. Positive correlations between caffeine and focus/athletic performance have been found ranging from 150mg-600mg/day, but after this amount the effect doesn’t increase much and may even turn negative. If caffeine is the world’s most commonly used drug, then it’s also the world’s most commonly used performance enhancer. It’s certainly worth exploring the effects of caffeine on MMA performance. As we know, MMA is as much mental as it is physical, so let’s look at how caffeine could effect both. Note: Caffeine’s effect varies not just among individuals, but also quite significantly between individual users (those who have developed a tolerance) and non-users.”

A Brief Mental Primer

Caffeine directly stimulates the Central Nervous System – think medulla and cortex – and can do so to the point where it allows people to be more alert and more focused for a few hours. We all know this, but many of us know this as it relates to getting up in the morning for work or swigging down an espresso so we can finish the drive home. In terms of MMA performance, the ability to focus is paramount. Essentially, MMA is high-speed physical chess. The moves are so technical – each one creating a potential opening for a counter – that a slight lapse in concentration could be the difference between turning your head a few degrees the wrong way while caught in a triangle…or escaping the triangle and moving to side control. Huge difference. And it all can happen in less than a second. Lastly, as we will also see below, caffeine can alter our perception of pain – meaning we may be able to endure more of it.

The Physical Side

Like most other supplements, caffeine was originally tested in athletes competing in endurance sports like running, cycling and swimming, so it is there where we have the most robust and tested studies. The effects of many studies were significant – not only did athletes who took caffeine have higher total work outputs (more revolutions on the ergometer in 75 minutes, for example) than those who received the placebo, but several studies showed that caffeine allowed the athletes body to first (and more efficiently) burn fat. This means that as the placebo endurance athlete blew their glycogen load and began to fatigue, one of two things (or even both) were taking place in the caffeinated athlete: Their body had reserves of glycogen left because fat was burned first and/or their energy systems had an easier time tapping into fat stores to fuel the final leg of their performance. Regardless of the reason, caffeinated athletes often performed at a minimum of 5% better. Lastly, last year I attended a presentation on caffeine and athletic performance at the NSCA’s annual conference in Las Vegas. They were reporting that caffeine had a numbing effect on the “burn” associated with muscular fatigue. This means that when your shoulders are so on fire that you can’t throw another punch, caffeine may help increase your endurance by allowing you to throw a few more combinations. Who knows, that last combination might include the final left hook that brings the bout to an end.

Some conditioning coaches say MMA is 75% anaerobic and 25% aerobic – or other similar figures. But MMA isn’t like other games. Lebron James runs up and down the court for two hours with intermittent bursts of explosiveness. Soccer players, depending on their position, need to be more explosive or more aerobic. MMA varies even more drastically. A fight can be a test of absolute bouts of explosions with short rests or a super-high and super-consistent aerobic output like a Jon Fitch grinding decision victory. Or it could end in fifteen seconds. Of course, MMA athletes need to be as explosive as possible, but even just the basic nerves and focus prior to a fight can raise the heart rate of a fighter sitting in a chair to a level judged to be “aerobic.” Regardless of the breakdown percentages provided, MMA is always both anaerobic and aerobic and there will never be a way to put specific numbers on either.

As more studies confirmed caffeine’s positive effects on endurance performance, more anaerobic sports were tested. Findings were again in favor of caffeine – showing that even athletes in absolute burst sports like powerlifting could achieve more powerful muscular contractions. What could this mean? It could be the difference between having a takedown stuffed or plowing through your opponent.

The Side Effects

My note about variability matters greatly. Just as athletes need to practice their weight cut, so do they need to practice and experiment with how caffeine effects their performance. For some, having a cup or two of coffee before entering the cage may give them an edge, for others it may simply increase nervous jitters, increase heart rate and thus lead to the athlete fatiguing more quickly. Athletes who do not ingest caffeine regularly will urinate more. Coffee does not dehydrate those who frequently drink it – the tolerance levels in the body treat it as any other liquid. But for those unaccustomed to drinking coffee or taking caffeine, it may take a few weeks for the body to begin excreting less urine. Other athletes may use caffeine to compensate for a lack of sleep and this can lead to a host of problems, including overtraining and even depression. Other athletes still may get an upset stomach or worse because of coffee’s acidity. The adrenal glands produce the hormones we need to handle stress, and some studies are showing that caffeine can lead to adrenal burnout which can lead to a decreased ability to cope with stress, increased nervousness, anxiety, etc. Lastly, as most of us get caffeine via coffee, it’s important to be aware of what you put in your coffee. I drink black, always. Adding artificial creamers and flavors only adds meaningless calories and some studies show it actually impedes some of coffee’s health effects (including the impact of caffeine). Of course, if you choose to experiment with caffeine as a performance-enhancing supplement, do so moderately and smartly. Document each experience in writing so you can compare it not only to your memory but to something more tangible.

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