Ah, caffeine! The definition of a pick-me-up, the answer to your energy slump, and the most energizing buzz you can legally buy in a convenience store near you.
If caffeine was an athlete, we’d imagine someone like Mark Allen, the man who won 20 straight triathlons from 1988-1990 and was deemed the 6-time winner of the Ironman World Championship. Or how about Maggie Guterl, the first woman to outlast all other athletes and win the Big’s Backyard Ultra which covers 250 miles. Yup, caffeine would be one heck of an athlete. But alas… Caffeine is not a person, it’s a stimulant.
Still, there’s nothing quite like the buzz of caffeine, especially before a workout or an endurance training session. After all, research suggests that caffeine can temporarily improve your overall athletic performance.
But as much as many of us love caffeine, and crave it most mornings, we can’t help but notice that there are a lot of misconceptions regarding caffeine and hydration. More specifically, caffeine and electrolytes.
So, if caffeine is supposedly known to increase athletic performance, then why does everyone and their mom seem to say that caffeine and hydration just don’t mix?
Well, let’s explore the relationship between caffeine and electrolytes and dive into the scientific evidence.
What is Caffeine?
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word caffeine?
You think of coffee, right? Or an energy drink? Obviously, caffeine is found in both of those beverages.
But caffeine is more than a buzz-inducing ingredient. It’s a bitter, stimulating substance that naturally occurs in over 60 different plants, like coffee beans and tea leaves.
It’s also found in Kola nuts, which help flavor your favorite soft drinks, and it’s found in cacao pods, which when fermented and processed, make delicious chocolate products.
There are synthetic caffeines as well. These types of caffeines are found in certain medicines, foods (like energy bars), and drinks.
So what’s the big deal? Why is caffeine so important? Well, it’s all about how caffeine works in the human body.
Let us explain…
How Caffeine Works
Scientifically speaking, caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor blocker. Don’t worry, this will all make sense in a minute…
Adenosine is a chemical found in your body and central nervous system, and it sort of acts as a “go-between'' to help regulate the output of neurotransmitters like dopamine, glutamate, GABA, serotonin, and noradrenaline. When they bind to their receptor cells, neuron activity begins to slow down and you become more and more tired.
But when caffeine enters, adenosines are blocked from binding to their receptor cells, which allows those stimulating neurons to move around more freely in the brain. Once the pituitary gland notices an increase in neuron firing, it releases adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone. And we all know what happens when we get a surge of adrenaline… We become more energetic.
Caffeine also enhances your brain's dopamine signaling, which could be one reason so many endurance runners experience the “runner’s high” at some point during their training or competition (though not the only reason). This is because shortly after finishing a race or an intense workout, there’s some dopamine leftover in the brain, causing you to feel elevated and in a better mood.
Simply put… Caffeine works by stimulating the activity in your brain and throughout your nervous system.
It increases your adrenaline, ramps up your cortisol levels, and can prevent you from getting tired by keeping you alert. Hence the reason why people find caffeine so important.
So, does this mean athletes should take caffeine?
Caffeine and Athletic Performance
The benefits of caffeine are pretty straightforward… It increases your overall energy, especially if you’re an athlete.
You see, caffeine has been shown to increase athletic performance, especially for endurance athletes. Think triathlons, marathons, cycling competitions, cross country skiing, and long course swimming. Even long-distance hikers can benefit from caffeine.
Consuming caffeine tablets in water can help an athlete go harder and last longer during workouts or training sessions. Even short bouts of athletic activity can benefit from caffeine tablets. And it’s all due to the way caffeine helps increase awareness and mental alertness.
In fact, the main purpose of caffeine is to prevent you from feeling and becoming tired. It can sharpen your ability to focus and increase your stamina.
Sarah Piampiano, winner of an Ironman race in New Orleans and the second American woman at the 2012 Ironman U.S. Championship in Manhattan, said,
“As you get further into the marathon, your energy supplies are depleted and you just really start suffering; that’s why I start increasing the amount of caffeine I take. At the end of the marathon, you need that energy kick… Caffeine is critical, particularly if you want to perform and have any success at the top level.”
However, there is a well-known downfall: caffeine is often followed by a hard crash. Once the energizing high fades, your body is worn out and in need of recovery. So, what do most people, and specifically athletes, do? They pop open yet another caffeinated energy drink.
This means caffeine can be fairly addictive for athletes and other consumers if they’re not careful.
How Long Does Caffeine Last?
Caffeine will hit its peak in your blood within an hour of drinking or eating it. Surprisingly, you may even continue to feel energized for as long as four to six hours after consumption. But it really just depends on your biological makeup.
For these reasons, people will often need a “pick-me-up” to get them through the day.
That said, caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive stimulant in the entire world. 80% or more of the adult population consumes large amounts of caffeine.
Think about it… What is the go-to morning beverage for most people? Nope, it’s not water… It's coffee. Or a type of caffeinated coffee, like espresso, cappuccino, or a flavored latte.
And for the afternoon slump, everyday people, as well as athletes, may reach for an energy drink or sports drink with caffeine. They’ve even created caffeine memes about it:
“I don’t have a caffeine problem, I have a problem without caffeine!”
They’re funny… But the truth is, you actually don’t need a lot of caffeine to achieve mental alertness and focus. In fact, too much caffeine can lead to caffeine dependence, or caffeine tolerance.
How Much Caffeine is Too Much?
As it turns out, the average healthy adult should only consume up to 400mg of caffeine per day. That’s the equivalent of 4 - 8oz cups of coffee. If you’re a soda person, that’s 10 cans. Yikes! Sounds like a lot, right? Teenagers should drink far less: no more than 100mg of caffeine a day. Here’s why…
Too much caffeine can cause some unwanted side effects:
- Restlessness or Insomnia,
- Anxiety or caffeine jitters,
- Heart palpitations,
- High blood pressure,
- Stomach upset,
- And caffeine toxicity (heart rhythm problems).
If you’re one of those people who can’t function without caffeine and absolutely need it throughout the day, then you may be caffeine-dependent. This means, if you do try to get off caffeine, or at least cut back on your caffeine intake, you may experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms like headaches and fatigue.
But the main issue that people are often confused about is caffeine and hydration.
Many people are convinced that caffeine can cause dehydration. And since electrolytes are the main minerals that keep our bodies hydrated, the real question is…
Does Caffeine Deplete Electrolytes?
Did you know that coffee, one of the world’s most popular beverages and a common way to consume caffeine, actually contains essential electrolytes? That’s right, coffee and electrolytes go hand-in-hand.
And according to research, coffee prepared by Aeropress and simple infusion contains a valuable source of magnesium and potassium. What’s more, “Potassium is the most abundant element in coffee beans and in brews mainly due to its high water solubility.”
And since Potassium is responsible for helping maintain a normal water–electrolyte balance in our body, it’s safe to say that coffee and electrolytes do actually mix.
That said, it’s often been suggested that coffee causes dehydration and that its consumption should be avoided or reduced significantly to maintain proper body fluid balance.
However, according to scientific research:
“Published studies offer no support for the suggestion that consumption of caffeine-containing beverages as part of a normal lifestyle leads to fluid loss in excess of the volume ingested or is associated with poor hydration status.
Therefore, there would appear to be no clear basis for refraining from caffeine-containing drinks in situations where body fluid-electrolyte balance might be compromised.”
But since coffee is considered a functional food that contains caffeine, what about other forms of caffeine? Where does this leave caffeine and electrolytes?
As it turns out, researchers reviewed 10 different studies regarding caffeine and electrolytes, and here’s what they concluded…
“Caffeine consumption stimulates a mild diuresis similar to water, but there is no evidence of a fluid-electrolyte imbalance that is detrimental to exercise performance or health…
The scientific literature suggests that athletes and recreational enthusiasts will not incur detrimental fluid-electrolyte imbalances if they consume [caffeinated beverages] in moderation and eat a typical U.S. diet. Sedentary members of the general public should be at less risk than athletes because their fluid losses via sweating are smaller.”
Another study concluded that “caffeine increased oxygen uptake and energy expenditure, without increased ratings of perceived exertion.”
So what does this all mean? It’s really quite simple… Caffeine does not cause dehydration, nor does it deplete the human body of electrolytes. That is, if you don’t over-consume caffeinated drinks.
However, we understand that everyone is different, and some people may be more sensitive to caffeine than others. Keep in mind that high doses of caffeine can irritate the bladder and may increase urinary urgency. It may even stimulate your GI tract and cause diarrhea.
For those reasons, some people might be concerned with coffee and sodium depletion, or even energy drinks and electrolyte imbalance. Constant urination and diarrhea will deplete your electrolytes, which is why it’s imperative that you drink more than just caffeinated beverages.
If you experience constant urination and diarrhea, you must replenish your fluids and restore your electrolytes, or you might experience an imbalance.
How Do I Restore My Electrolyte Balance?
First, let’s look at the main electrolytes found in our body. These include sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate.
An electrolyte imbalance can occur whenever one or more of these electrolytes decrease or increase more than they should.
Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include:
- Light-headedness, dizziness, and headaches
- Muscle cramps, weakness, and spasms
- Dry mouth
- Irregular heartbeat
If you’re not careful, a prolonged electrolyte imbalance could lead to seizures in severe cases.
This is why the best way you can restore your electrolyte balance is through a well-balanced, healthy diet and fluid intake. In other words, drink plenty of water!
Water is always a good place to start when rehydrating your body, but sometimes you do need an electrolyte sports drink to help pick up the slack.
Which begs the question…
Do Electrolytes Give You Energy?
The truth is, without electrolytes you’d feel completely fatigued and unwell. The main purpose of electrolytes is to give and keep your body well hydrated so that it can function properly.
That said, while electrolytes are considered electrically charged minerals, they don’t actually give you energy per se. In other words, you’re not going to feel like the energizer bunny just from a few electrolytes. You will, however, feel more refreshed.
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for hydration and energy, then you’ll need something more than a regular electrolyte drink mix. You need caffeine in a sports drink or a healthy energy drink with electrolytes. But is there such a thing?
Let’s find out…
Do Energy Drinks Have Electrolytes?
Pop quiz! Which drink has the most electrolytes… Energy drinks, or soft drinks?
Answer: Energy drinks!
Yup, electrolytes are actually infused into some energy drinks. But not all energy drinks are created the same.
The issue with certain energy drinks is that the amount of caffeine can vary. In fact, some energy drink companies don’t label their drinks with the accurate amount of caffeine that’s actually found in them. Sounds pretty sketchy, right?
What’s more, these same energy drinks contain ingredients that can be harmful, like high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and color dyes. Most people know that these ingredients aren’t a good idea to be consumed in significant quantities.
You can also research “electrolyte replacement drinks comparison”. This is a great way to explore different brands that have a variety of electrolyte tablets with caffeine and determine which product has more electrolytes. Because besides water, the key to hydration is… Electrolytes!
Energy Drinks with Electrolytes vs. Electrolyte Sports Drinks with Caffeine
Energy drinks and sport drinks are two different product categories altogether.
Energy drinks are designed to increase your energy and prevent you from feeling tired. Sports drinks are designed to increase hydration and prevent electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, and fatigue. This is why a sports drink is the best drink to restore electrolytes.
That said, some energy drinks do contain electrolytes, but their main ingredients are stimulants and sugar. This means drinking certain energy drinks several times per day may increase nervousness, sleep problems, potential weight gain, and signs of diabetes.
We also want to point out that drinking energy drinks to quench your thirst after an intense workout session or athletic performance isn’t a bad option, but it’s not always the best option either.
Sure, after an intense workout or endurance competition, you feel exhausted. So drinking an energy drink might help give you a boost of energy. But make sure it’s not the only beverage you drink. You need specific nutrients to restore your electrolytes and promote muscle recovery. Which brings us back to sports drinks…
Some sports drinks contain both electrolytes and caffeine, and since sports drinks with electrolytes are designed to keep your body hydrated, this makes them ideal for athletes and anyone who happens to work outside in the heat.
When we sweat, we lose a lot more than just water; we lose electrolytes and other vital nutrients that keep our body functioning properly. Electrolyte sport drinks are key to replenishing those nutrients. But not all sports drinks contain essential nutrients and minerals like electrolytes.
You have to be really careful to read the ingredients on the back of the package or label, and not just the fancy marketing claims that are listed on the front of the package. For endurance athletes, it’s crucial to pay attention to the ingredients.
While we would never discourage you or any athlete from drinking an energy drink, especially if they contain electrolytes, we do encourage you to focus on the type of electrolytes the energy drink contains — especially if you plan on drinking one before an endurance competition or workout session.
If you want something to truly sustain you with countless energy and essential nutrients, consider a hydration tablet with caffeine, or caffeine electrolyte tablets. This is especially true for endurance athletes.
The deciding factor between electrolytes drinks and energy drinks shouldn't be whether the product contains a lot of caffeine. It should be based on the electrolytes and other ingredients that help keep you hydrated and energized. Caffeine is a bonus.
Tailwind Nutrition is great at prioritizing healthy and essential ingredients in their electrolyte powder packets.
Which brings us to…
Best Drink to Restore Electrolytes and Increase Endurance Energy
Tailwind’s Endurance Fuel is created with three core ingredients: Electrolytes, water, and calories.
Tailwind’s first priority is electrolytes. Our Endurance Fuel contains the following:
- Sodium –– the number one electrolyte we lose when we sweat
- Potassium –– responsible for maintaining our overall water-electrolyte balance
- Magnesium –– helps support muscle contraction and prevent muscle cramping or Charley horses
- Calcium –– normalizes our heart rhythm, muscle contraction, and bone formation
Having these electrolytes in powder form helps speed up our absorption of fuel and replaces the minerals we lose when we sweat. This is especially true for athletes or anyone who sweats a lot. Seriously, our Endurance Fuel is the best form of electrolytes on the market.
Tailwind’s second priority is water. Since water makes up about 70% or more of our overall body mass, we need to consume lots of it. But sometimes we need a little extra help to absorb high-quality H2O. That’s where Tailwind’s Endurance Fuel comes in…
You see, electrolytes’ main goal is to carry hydration to the parts of your body that need it most. This means, by adding Tailwind’s electrolyte powder to your water, it helps maximize how much water you actually absorb throughout your entire body. Pretty cool, right?
Tailwind’s third priority is calories. Every endurance athlete knows that “calories” is just another word for energy. Seriously, look it up. But you can't sit down and eat a nutrient-heavy meal in the middle of a training session or an athletic competition… So what do you do? You drink Tailwind’s Endurance Fuel which contains nutrient-rich calories to help you cross that finish line!
You see, we use sucrose and dextrose to give your body the stamina it needs to endure intense physical activity. But that’s not all… As it turns out, our body is designed to absorb both sucrose and dextrose, which means these ingredients can enter your bloodstream more quickly without causing an explosive gut bomb, indigestion, or stomach issues.
As a bonus, here at Tailwind Nutrition, we also offer a few different Endurance Fuel mixes that contain caffeine.
One serving size only contains 35mg of caffeine, which is just enough to give you that added boost you need to catapult your overall athletic performance, without tearing your stomach up. We also have several flavors of our caffeinated Endurance Fuel to choose from: Matcha, Raspberry, Tropical, and Cola.
And since our main focus is hydration and easy-to-digest ingredients, our caffeinated Endurance Fuel is the best sports drink to replace electrolytes and increase overall energy.
When Should Athletes Use Caffeine in Sports
As an athlete, the best time to use caffeine to increase your athletic performance is about 20 to 60 minutes before you exercise or perform any athletic activity.
As it turns out, studies show that about 99% of caffeine is absorbed within the first 45-60 minutes after controlled caffeine consumption. And depending on your biological makeup and metabolism, high concentrations of caffeine can actually stay in your bodily system for a few hours.
For example, taking electrolytes with caffeine about an hour before a 5k or even a 10k, could help energize you all the way to the finish line. Some athletes may even feel the effects of caffeine for the duration of a full marathon.
Robbie Britton, an extreme ultra-endurance athlete and participant of the GB Ultratunner, is no stranger to using caffeine to enhance his athletic performance…
“Caffeine becomes one of your tools in avoiding the ‘sleep monsters’. As well as your normal circadian rhythm advising you to drift off, there can also be a build-up of adenosine in your brain, which will also put you to sleep as it builds up.
Caffeine can be used to block the receptors of adenosine in the brain, providing a temporary block of those feelings and allowing you to push on a little longer.
My advice would be to use it tactically, whether in drinks like coffee or coca-cola, or a supplement like gum. If you’re waiting until you feel sleepy, remember it can take 20-30 minutes for the caffeine to kick in.”
Robbie Britton is right… Since blood levels of caffeine reach their peak around the 60-minute mark after consumption, you’ll likely notice the effects taking place around the 30-minute mark.
How Much Caffeine Should Athletes Consume?
It all depends on your body weight and metabolism.
Some expert scientists suggest consuming caffeinated beverages at doses of 6 - 9mg per kilogram of body mass, or the equivalent of 3 - 4 cups of coffee. They say that’s enough caffeine to positively affect prolonged endurance activities like running and cycling.
Other experts recommend it should be around 3 - 6mg per kilogram of body weight. So, if you weigh roughly 150Ib, 200-400mg of caffeine is the most you’ll want to consume.
Low doses of caffeine have been shown to improve mood and cognitive processes both during and after strenuous exercise. It’s also been shown to increase vigilance and alertness.
Keep in mind that these figures are only estimates. If you’ve never consumed caffeine before, or you’ve rarely consumed it—especially before or during athletic activity—then you may not need very much at all. In fact, it’s best to start slow and with a low dose.
If you’re an avid caffeine consumer, then you may need to adjust your caffeine intake altogether. Remember, too much caffeine can lead to unwanted side effects like anxiety.
British sprint canoeist and two-time medalist of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Liam Heath, had this to say:
“For me, there’s probably quite a significant psychological impact. Taking caffeine is a particular step that I take prior to getting on the water, it’s part of my routine and it helps me feel sharper. I take my last dose 40 minutes prior to the competition. I’ve found there’s a fine line between nailing the caffeine and balancing the adrenaline which I’ve refined with trial and error. You don’t want to overdo it so that you’re shaky and fidgety.”
The key is to take it easy, listen to your body, and stick to high-quality hydration tablets with low caffeine. We recommend low doses of 35mg of caffeine per serving or less.
Electrolytes with Caffeine: Final Thoughts
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that offers tremendous benefits for both athletes and everyday consumers.
If you’re considering adding caffeine to your daily athletic routine, make sure you research the source of your caffeine supplement.
Stick to electrolyte powders that offer caffeinated options like Tailwind’s Endurance Fuel, because electrolytes are what you need to remain hydrated during intense physical exertion. And caffeine is a bonus ingredient to give you that extra push over the finish line. The cleaner the product, the more effective it will be for you in the long run.