Caffeine’s Placebo Effect on Performance

Caffeine is one of the oldest performance-enhancing aids around.  According to the summary article on caffeine by the JISSN, it:

  • enhances performance when consumed in doses of about 3-6 mg per kilogram bodyweight (more isn’t better)
  • has a greater performance-enhancing effect when consumed by pill vs. liquid (coffee for instance)
  • keeps you mentally alert (it’s the most widely used CNS stimulant in the world)
  • benefits sustained maximal endurance exercise as well as run and stop type intermittent exercise (soccer for instance)
  • it doesn’t dehydrate you

And, while caffeine works, it may also have a placebo effect going for it. According to a study presented at BASES, simply telling your athletes they are ingesting caffeine may help them peform better. In this (very small) study, 12 cyclists were asked to perform a series of trials:

  1. Team 1 was told they would be receiving caffeine and given caffeine
  2. Team 2 was told they would receive a placebo and given a placebo
  3. Team 3 was told they would receive caffeine but given a placebo
  4. Team 4 was told they would receive a placebo and given caffeine

Each participant took part in every trial and therefore they were given a chance to be on each of the 4 teams above; exercise consisted of a 30 second all out cycling sprint performance.

The results showed that Team 1’s sprint power was highest and Team 2’s the lowest but, Teams 3 and 4 were exactly the same indicating that an athlete may react to simply being told they are getting caffeine.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when you consider the # of supplements athlete’s think work when the research-based reality shows little to no affect on parameters of performance, recovery or prevention of illness. After all, the belief that something works or that you can perform better will take an athlete further than not using the principles of sports psychology. Performance is multi faceted and, when small differences separate first and second place, you’ve got to use every possible performance enhancing aid available including one of the most powerful ones – your mind.

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