A few days ago in response to a blog post over at the Rowing News I put together a brief post on caffeine and rowing. I should have known better than to treat such an interesting topic, that is so well known to so many, too lightly. Astute reader Eric Fyon pointed out recently in the comments to that post that he is concerned that caffeine might actually hurt rowing performance.
Examining questions such as this, and sharing each other's opinions can be very interesting - and helps us all learn and develop our own understanding. For me that's the fun in much of this so I encourage you to add your comments to the blog.
In response to Mr. Fyon I will admit that the posting on caffeine refers to enhanced performance in events that are clearly endurance events - considerably longer than a six minute rowing event. At the same time it is worth pointing out something that is often overlooked: that the research results on caffeine and performance are typically for non-habitual caffeine users. In other words, if you need your morning cup of java - the research doesn't apply to you. Knowing many of the rowers I know, we can then conclude that there is no evidence that caffeine will improve their performance! In fact, I can offer considerable anecdotal evidence that without caffeine, many rowers would see their performance suffer as their bodies are so used to their daily dose.
But what of rowing and caffeine? I'll see what I can do to put together a response to Mr. Fyon for a future posting but in the meantime we need to look at actual studies to see what has happened. There is an interesting review at The Gatorade Sports Science institute titled "Caffeine: Why, When, for What?" by Dr. Lawrence Spriet of the University of Guelph. in it he notes:
"There is growing evidence to suggest that caffeine is ergogenic or "work enhancing" during short-term exercise. Performance was improved with caffeine ingestion during simulated running, cycling, rowing, and swimming races lasting from ~4 to 30 min. However, performance during graded exercise tests lasting 8-20 min and during sprint exercise (less than 90 s) was generally unaffected by caffeine. Exercise events lasting between 90 s to 4 min have not been tested."
He goes on to tell us that the whole issue of enhanced fat metabolism being the mechanism for improved performance may be a moot point:
"The classic caffeine-induced cascade of events leading to the sparing of muscle carbohydrate use during exercise that was initially proposed to explain the improvement in performance during endurance exercise now seems less tenable for most exercise situations. Alternately, there has been growing support for the suggestion that caffeine enhances performance by reducing the perception of effort during exercise by altering the handling of sensory signals from working muscles or by directly affecting the central nervous system."
Enhancement of 2000-m rowing performance after caffeine ingestion. C.R. Bruce, M.E. Anderson, S.F. Fraser, N.K. Stepto, R. Klein, W.G. Hopkins, and J.A. Hawley. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 2000 Volume 32 pp. 1958-1963. Improved 2000-Meter Rowing Performance in Competitive Oarswomen After Caffeine Ingestion. M.E. Anderson, C.R. Bruce, S. F. Fraser, N.K. Stepto, R. Klein, W.G. Hopkins, and J.A. Hawley. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2000 Volume 10 pp. 464-475
The author of the York University site summarized the studies as follows:
"Eight female and eight male competitive rowers participated in these studies. The purpose was to determine the effects of various doses of caffeine on a 2000 m ergometer performance. The subjects performed three 2000 m tests 3-7 days apart. The subjects consumed either 6 mg/kg of caffeine, 9 mg/kg of caffeine or a placebo that contained no caffeine. In both studies the consumption of caffeine improved 2000 m performance. The men improved by an average of 1.2% . The men responded best to the lower dose of caffeine where the verage performance increase was 1.3%"
The author also makes note of the fat/carbohydrate issue:
"A 2000m race is not long enough to cause carbohydrate depletion. The performance enhancement seen for a rowing race is more likely due to the effects that caffeine has on the central nervous system (CNS). Caffeine increases the number of motor units recruited, this means that more muscles are active during the race allowing the rower to pull a little bit harder. It has also been suggested that caffeine may affect the CNS in such a way that fatigue signals are over ridden."
So it would seem that there is evidence supporting the benefits of caffeine on rowing performance. If you have any experience, or any opinion at all - join in on the conversation in the comments section.