Caffeine and anaerobic performance: ergogenic value and mechanisms of action

Sports Med. 2009;39(10):813-32. doi: 10.2165/11317770-000000000-00000.


The effect caffeine elicits on endurance performance is well founded. However, comparatively less research has been conducted on the ergogenic potential of anaerobic performance. Some studies showing no effect of caffeine on performance used untrained subjects and designs often not conducive to observing an ergogenic effect. Recent studies incorporating trained subjects and paradigms specific to intermittent sports activity support the notion that caffeine is ergogenic to an extent with anaerobic exercise. Caffeine seems highly ergogenic for speed endurance exercise ranging in duration from 60 to 180 seconds. However, other traditional models examining power output (i.e. 30-second Wingate test) have shown minimal effect of caffeine on performance. Conversely, studies employing sport-specific methodologies (i.e. hockey, rugby, soccer) with shorter duration (i.e. 4-6 seconds) show caffeine to be ergogenic during high-intensity intermittent exercise. Recent studies show caffeine affects isometric maximal force and offers introductory evidence for enhanced muscle endurance for lower body musculature. However, isokinetic peak torque, one-repetition maximum and muscular endurance for upper body musculature are less clear. Since relatively few studies exist with resistance training, a definite conclusion cannot be reached on the extent caffeine affects performance. It was previously thought that caffeine mechanisms were associated with adrenaline (epinephrine)-induced enhanced free-fatty acid oxidation and consequent glycogen sparing, which is the leading hypothesis for the ergogenic effect. It would seem unlikely that the proposed theory would result in improved anaerobic performance, since exercise is dominated by oxygen-independent metabolic pathways. Other mechanisms for caffeine have been suggested, such as enhanced calcium mobilization and phosphodiesterase inhibition. However, a normal physiological dose of caffeine in vivo does not indicate this mechanism plays a large role. Additionally, enhanced Na+/K+ pump activity has been proposed to potentially enhance excitation contraction coupling with caffeine. A more favourable hypothesis seems to be that caffeine stimulates the CNS. Caffeine acts antagonistically on adenosine receptors, thereby inhibiting the negative effects adenosine induces on neurotransmission, arousal and pain perception. The hypoalgesic effects of caffeine have resulted in dampened pain perception and blunted perceived exertion during exercise. This could potentially have favourable effects on negating decreased firing rates of motor units and possibly produce a more sustainable and forceful muscle contraction. The exact mechanisms behind caffeine's action remain to be elucidated.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaerobic Threshold / drug effects*
  • Bicycling / physiology*
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism
  • Caffeine / pharmacology*
  • Catecholamines / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / pharmacology*
  • Fatigue / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Isometric Contraction / drug effects
  • Lactic Acid / metabolism
  • Muscle Fatigue / drug effects
  • Pain / prevention & control
  • Physical Endurance / drug effects*
  • Potassium / metabolism
  • Receptors, Purinergic P1 / drug effects


  • Blood Glucose
  • Catecholamines
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Receptors, Purinergic P1
  • Lactic Acid
  • Caffeine
  • Potassium