After water and tea, coffee is the most popular drink in the world, with over 400 billion cups consumed each year. Us Brits sink an average of two cups a day – primarily to stay awake after getting out of bed, then again to fight off the post-lunch energy slump.
Professional sportsmen and women, however, tend to use coffee to gain an edge over their competition: to lift heavier, run faster and execute more precisely. So what can the average amateur learn about how athletes use coffee to power their performance?
Here we spoke to sports nutritionist Graeme Close and a Michelin-starred chef Alan Murchison – friends of Italian specialist coffee machine company La Marzocco
, who you can find at The Refuel Café at Balance Festival 2021
– to understand how coffee can help give your workout a boost.
Close, a former professional rugby league player and Professor of Human Physiology at Liverpool John Moores University, has consulted some of the world's leading sports teams in nutrition. In 2019 he supported the England Rugby team in Japan on their path to the final of the Rugby World Cup.
Murchison, aka the Performance Chef, has a long background in fine dining, having owned and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants for over 25 years. In 2013 he left the restaurant scene to work with athletes of all abilities from Olympic competitors and World Champions to recreational athletes.
Graeme, having been an expert nutrition consultant to England Rugby and Aston Villa FC, how does coffee and caffeine fit into sports and performance?
GC: Caffeine has a huge place in sport. It is probably the most studied of all the ergogenic aids [substances that support energy production] with overwhelming evidence it can enhance performance. It’s common to see athletes taking around 2 mg per kg of bodyweight of caffeine around 45 minutes prior to exercise. That equates to about 200 mg for a rugby player or, in other terms, about a double espresso.
This dose of caffeine makes exercise feel easier and can delay the onset of fatigue in endurance events. It has even been shown to reduce feelings of soreness. Combined with the fact that it is no longer prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), I would say caffeine is the most used supplement in modern day sport.
And Alan, given you create training and nutritional plans for both professional and recreational athletes, what role does coffee play?
AM: Coffee culture and sports are intertwined. Most cyclists especially love a “café ride” and seem unable to function without at least a couple of double espressos. At elite level coffee is one treat athletes can enjoy when most others are off limits. Caffeine also plays a key role in high performance, from a strong coffee pre-event to using caffeine gum or gels to optimise performance in the latter stages of endurance events.
Aside from the impact on performance, how else does coffee fit into the day-to-day life of athletes when you're on the road with them?
GC: The modern athlete does not have many treats left available to them. People like me have convinced them to avoid or reduce alcohol, takeaway food, chocolate, etc. but coffee is one treat we not only allow, but we actively promote for many of the reasons discussed above.
The coffee machine is also the social hub of many sports teams where players get the chance to relax and socialise with each other – and trust me the barista skills of many elite players are unreal. Some of the nicest coffees I have ever had are in England camp made by some of the players.
AM: We always have the coffee machine set up as a first priority at any event as this tends to be the place all riders meet. Whether that is to set them up for the day or post-event for a catch up and debrief, the social aspect of coffee is totally underrated.
For someone looking to improve their performance with coffee, what is your number one tip?
GC: I would say timing is everything – and quality. I’m a big fan of having coffee earlier in the day, or an hour before exercise, rather than too late in the day when it can impair sleep. I’ve also noticed that, with the popularity of the La Marzocco Linea Mini, the England players are enjoying a much higher quality of coffee and therefore having fewer cups per day. So focus on quality to reduce your quantity.
AM: As with any area of high performance it is important to find out what works best for you. Every athlete is individual and tolerance and reaction to caffeine varies hugely. Rather than trying your luck on the day of a race or match, it’s better to practise in training and then use what you’ve learned on the day of the event. Coffee practice… now that is something we can all get excited about.
To discover more about the role of caffeine and performance, watch this panel discussion from this year’s London Coffee Festival, and visit La Marzocco at The Refuel Café at Balance Festival 2021 to try their elite-level espresso machines for yourself.