Caffeine and Climbing : how to improve your performance

Caffeine is an interesting drug—the world’s most popular. And it’s important to keep in mind that it behaves like a drug. Not all drugs affect all people equally. In fact, caffeine has a number of ergogenic benefits. It increases strength and power, improves endurance, and helps you resist exercise-related pain and fatigue. These are certainly important effects. But they only exist downstream from a couple, much more important effects: improvements in focus and mood.

Yes, drinking coffee can help you climb harder. Or run longer, or lift more, or cycle faster. But it does so only because it makes you happier and more focused. And not because it directly affects the muscles or energy.

This leads to an important consideration. If it does not improve your mood or focus—if it makes you jittery and anxious—then it’s probably not going to improve your performance, either! I say “probably” because mood, focus, jitteriness, and anxiety are not mutually exclusive. You can be generally more focused while also jittery and anxious as well. By and large, though, those who get the most benefit out of coffee are going to be the ones who feel the best while taking it.

If you count yourself among the latter group, then there’s a second thing that’s important to consider as well. This beverage affects all individuals in the same manner. It has the same mechanism. And since caffeine is a 100% foreign molecule (we don’t produce it ourselves), we can expect caffeine-naive users to have the capacity for equal effects. More simply put: if you get anxious or jittery on caffeine, it’s probably not because you’re destined to feel that way. It’s probably because you’re taking too much. More on this later.

Caffeine Habituation Only Augments Effects

In studies done on caffeine, there is no firm consensus on whether habituation affects ergogenicity. The level of habituation can vary greatly individual-to-individual. And strongly affects how much caffeine affects the individual in question. If you typically consume only 8 ounces of coffee a day (about 90 mg of caffeine), you will certainly be habituated to a greater extent than the caffeine-naive user. But also not nearly as much as the individual who regularly consumes 8 shots of espresso (about 400 mg of caffeine). Subsequently, when these individuals consume caffeine, it will provide magnitudes of effect that will magnify or diminish its ergogenicity.

Habituation does affect ergogenicity, but only to the extent that it decreases caffeine’s mood-improving and focusing effects. If you drink coffees daily and still get buzzed, you needn’t worry about losing out on all of the benefits. On the other hand, if you need it just to return to “normal” and don’t feel buzzed at all after drinking it, then you’re probably not going to benefit much from it. At least aside from the “benefit” of not being sluggish from caffeine withdrawal!

The effects aren’t binary. They’re a sliding scale. The more habituated you become, the less benefit you will glean. The more naive to this beverage you are, the more benefit there is to gain. Most people can consume at least some caffeine daily and maintain some of its benefits. But there are also times—such as competitions or project days—that it might be worthwhile to dehabituate from caffeine first so as to get maximum benefit, a process which takes 4-7 days on average. Weigh your priorities.

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