This article was written by medical doctor and Black Belt Marc Barton, who is also the head instructor at Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood London.
Jiu-Jitsu is commonly referred to as human chess, an incredible activity that requires the athlete to have a perfect blend of physical and cognitive skills to achieve mastery. This is why, in my opinion, caffeine is an ideal performance enhancer, as it has been proven to have beneficial effects on both muscular performance and the central nervous system.
What is caffeine?
Caffeine, also known as trimethylxanthine, is the world’s most commonly used stimulant, with 80% of Americans estimated to use it on any given day. The most well-known source of caffeine is the bean of the Coffea Arabica plant, which is used to make my favourite beverage, coffee. Coffee has been used in human society for hundreds of years, and is reported as being discovered in Ethiopia in 800 A.D. Caffeine is also present in other drinks such as tea and numerous soft drinks and energy drinks.
The effects of caffeine on muscular performance
Several studies have shown the benefits of caffeine on muscular performance. A literature review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning in 2012 examined 29 separate studies that measured alterations in short-term performance following caffeine ingestion. 11 of these studies revealed significant improvements in team sports exercise and power-based sports with caffeine ingestion, and 6 of these studies revealed significant benefits of caffeine for resistance training.
A more recent paper published in the European Journal of Sports Science looked specifically at the effects of caffeine on the muscular performance of elite Jiu-Jitsu athletes. This study demonstrated that caffeine increased muscular power and force, and endurance strength in the group of athletes tested.
It is not fully understood exactly how caffeine improves muscular and athletic performance, but the effects are undoubtedly proven and well accepted by the scientific community performing research in the area.
Caffeine and the central nervous system
Jiu-Jitsu, however, is far from a purely physical activity, and it can be argued that the cognitive and problem-solving skills required are equally as important to the athlete as his or her physical prowess. Fortunately, caffeine can help with this aspect of Jiu-Jitsu also.
Caffeine is a stimulant that has a diverse range of effects on the central nervous system, including improved attention span and concentration at lower doses. It has also been shown to reduce mistakes caused by drowsiness in shift workers and improve performance during sleep deprivation. The effects start within an hour of ingestion and last for between 5 and 8 hours. Drinking a cup of coffee an hour before training may help to focus your mind for the task at hand, assist in learning techniques, and even help your problem-solving skill during live rolling.
What about dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate has powerful antioxidant properties and also contains caffeine. In addition to caffeine, it also contains other stimulants such as theobromine and phenylethylamine. Theobromine has similar effects to caffeine but its stimulant effects are less pronounced. Phenylethylamine has a similar biochemical structure to amphetamines and causes the release of dopamine and endorphins. A couple of squares of dark chocolate is another great way to give yourself a performance-enhancing boost whilst treating yourself to a delicious snack at the same time.
Is caffeine legal for competitors?
Unlike many other performance-enhancing drugs, caffeine is both completely legal for competitors, and freely available. This has not always been the case though, and the caffeine was at one point a banned substance by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In 2004 caffeine was removed from the banned substance list though, and athletes no longer need to worry about this.
Side-effects of caffeine and safety
Like all drugs caffeine should be treated with respect. To quote Tim Ferris – ‘there are no biological free lunches’. It is important to remember that caffeine is a potent stimulant drug with potential side-effects. Caffeine should be ingested in moderation and the safest way to ingest it seems to be as brewed or filter-dripped coffee.
The negative effects of caffeine become most pronounced if it is ingested in large quantities. If you drink too many cups of coffee you should expect to experience jitteriness and mild anxiety-type symptoms. It can also cause sleep disturbance and is an addictive substance with a recognized withdrawal syndrome. Other, rare, side effects include palpitations, gastrointestinal disturbances, high blood pressure, tremors, and dizziness.
It is also possible to overdose of caffeine, and although this is very rare, it can be fatal. This usually occurs due to a deleterious effect on the heart. Most of these overdose episodes occur due to the ingestion of very highly caffeinated energy drinks. Toxic levels correlate approximately with drinking about 30 cups of coffee in a relatively short period of time. Whilst drinking 30 cups of coffee is difficult to do, ingesting the same amount of caffeine from energy drinks and caffeine pills or powder is much easier. There is really no good that can come from this sort of excessive ingestion and a couple of cups a day are more than enough to gain any benefits.
The effects of caffeine on both physical and cognitive performance are well accepted and backed by a large number of scientific studies. Used in moderation and with respect it can be a very helpful tool to assist your training and performance, and I almost always have a cup before I attend a heavy sparring session or an intense high-energy class.
Caffeine is a double-edged sword, however, and should be ingested in moderation and with respect in order to avoid the potentially serious negative effects that can be associated with it. If you have pre-existing health problems, particularly those that are related to your heart or gastrointestinal system, you should definitely check with your doctor before using it as a performance enhancer.