Prof’s Book Explores Use of Caffeine for Sports Performance

October 31, 2013 - News Release

Don’t be surprised to see runners downing coffee at the start line of the New York City marathon this weekend.

Caffeine is widely used to improve athletic performance, especially in endurance sports such as marathons, says University of Guelph professor Lawrence Spriet.

In fact, caffeine is now the most popular sports supplement on the planet; about one in four athletes use it in one form or another.

Its prevalence prompted Spriet, chair of Guelph’s Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, and two Australians to write a book on the subject.

Caffeine has long been used in sport, but the science behind it is only decades old -- and much of the work has been published only in academic journals, Spriet said.

“There was a need to translate the research that has been done into ‘plain language’ -- into a resource for coaches, trainers or athletes looking to use caffeine to improve training and competition.”

Caffeine for Sports Performance includes new research, study summaries and guidelines for people interested in using the drug in sport.

And make no mistake, said Spriet: caffeine is a drug.

“But it’s the most socially accepted drug on the planet. All over the world, it’s ingrained in society, so to try and ban it or even restrict it is pretty tough.”

Caffeine has profound and varied effects on the body, Spriet said. In sport, the most powerful is its ability to block the actions of a chemical in the body called adenosine. By enhancing work and alleviating fatigue, caffeine helps boost the body's drive to keep exercising and sustain muscle activity, he said.

It also reduces the brain’s perception of pain or muscle fatigue, which comes in handy during a 42-kilometre race.

Caffeine’s effect differs in intensity from person to person, Spriet said. “In the human world, the name of the game is variability.”

But unlike about 98 per cent of sports supplements on the market that claim to boost performance, it does work, he said.

The book looks at caffeine’s rise among athletes, including how and why attitudes about its use have changed.

Another thing that has changed is dosage amounts, Spriet said. “There is now evidence that you need less caffeine – a lot less – to get the same effect.”

The book covers pros and cons of using the drug, heath advice, potential risks, and the best and worst caffeine sources, ranging from coffee drinks to pills to sports gels.

In interviews, top athletes and coaches tell interesting stories about their experiences with caffeine.

Spriet, a U of G professor for 28 years, started studying caffeine in 1989 while looking at how skeletal muscles generate the large amounts of energy needed for sports. He has studied the body's pathways for using carbohydrate and lipid as fuel to produce energy, including examining compounds that can or claim to improve performance.

He also studies the effects of dehydration in athletes engaging in stop-and-go sports such as hockey and basketball. He has worked with Canadian World Juniors and Olympic hockey teams, the NHL New York Rangers, the NBA Toronto Raptors, and the Guelph Storm.

He wrote Caffeine for Sports Performance with Ben Desbrow and Louise Burke. Desbrow is a professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and a sport dietitian who has worked with the British Olympic team.

Burke heads the sports nutrition program at the Australian Institute of Sport. She was Australian team dietitian for five Summer Olympics and is a director of the International Olympic Committee’s sports nutrition diploma program.

She will also be among the estimated 45,000 runners who will take part in Sunday’s New York City marathon, touted as the largest in the world.

Prof. Lawrence Spriet
Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53745 or 53907

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or

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