A Review by Alyssa Bialowas

Caffeine is an ergogenic aid, meaning it’s a substance that may improve performance and stamina. Elite athletes often use ergogenic aids to enhance their energy and execution. Sprint swimmers have to perform repeated high-intensity races that require high amounts of energy, and moderate doses of caffeine have the potential to improve their sprint time.

Up until now, studies have mainly focused on moderate doses of caffeine and its effect on endurance athletes (Goods et al. 2017). There is a lack of field based investigations with elite athletes to determine the ability of caffeine to improve high-intensity performance in highly trained athletes (Burke, 2008). The question stands: Can caffeine, in fact, improve mean sprint time in elite swimmers?

The Study

Nine national-level male swimmers participated in this study. A three-week, single-blind, crossover study was designed where the swimmers performed 6 x 75 m freestyle sprints one-hour after consuming either caffeine or placebo. Both sessions during the two week trial were performed at the same time of day on the same day of the week and participants were asked not to train in the morning before testing. Participants were also asked not to consume caffeine in the 48 hours before each session. A sleep diary was kept for the week to assess the effect of each substrate on sleep.

The 6 x 75 m sprints commenced with a dive start and each swimmer was paired up to emulate competition. Capillary blood samples for the analysis of blood lactate concentration and pH were collected after the 1st, 3rd and 5th sprint before starting a between-sprint recovery of 2 x 100 m low intensity freestyle. Following every sprint, heart rate and perceived exertion were collected, and participants were asked which substrate they thought they consumed before that session. Sprint times were analyzed using sports video software and recorded to the nearest 0.02 s.

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The Results

Results revealed a significantly improved sprint performance in the 3rd and 4th sprints when the swimmer took caffeine before their performance. They also found a moderate effect for improved mean sprint times with caffeine compared to placebo. There were no differences in blood pH or blood lactate concentration prior to capsule ingestion or after warm-up between caffeine and placebo.

There was a significant treatment effect for higher blood lactate concentrations with caffeine, and time effect, but no treatment*time effect. Blood pH was significantly lower in caffeine trials after the 1st and 5th sprint during the repeat-sprint trial, but not following the third set. Mean heart rate and self-perceived rating of exertion were not different between caffeine and placebo trials.

The Takeaway

Moderate caffeine ingestion improved mean sprint time during a 6 x 75 m freestyle repeat-sprint performance in elite male athletes. Further research should investigate caffeine’s effect on sprint athletes other than swimmers to see if the results hold true across elite athletes and in order to deem caffeine an effective ergogenic aid for elite sprint athletes.

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Burke, L.M. (2008). “Caffeine and Sports Performance.” Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism, 33, 1319-1334.

Goods, P.S.R., Landers, G., and Fulton, S. (2017). “Caffeine Ingestion Improves Repeated Freestyle Sprints in Elite Male Athletes.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 16, 93-98.