Is Coffee a Performance-Enhancing Drug? (And Do We Care?)


Subliminal latte messages? [Photograph: Chris Hunkeler on Flickr]

Whether we like it or not, caffeine is classified as a drug: A naturally occurring substance in the alkaloid family, it counts among its distant relatives nicotine, opium, and cocaine. Unlike most of its seedier cousins, however, it's not only legal but almost universally consumed. But does caffeine count as a performance-enhancing drug, and should it be banned as such?

Much has been made about doping in sports: Between the skeptical clearance of Roger Clemens, the gave-up-his-defense-so-he-must-be-guilty fate of Lance Armstrong, and the public shaming of track star Marion Jones, it seems like every athletic venture has been tainted by drugs in one way or another. But does coffee count?

Semi-inconclusive academic and scientific studies show that caffeine does enhance athletic performance: Not only does it improve alertness, but it also appears to make fast folks faster and potentially delays the depletion of muscle glycogen stores, which is a boon for performance athletes. (Downsides: It's a diuretic, which can be inconvenient at race time, and too much of this good thing causes nausea, headaches, and cramping, and can speed dehydration.)

The question becomes, then, whether ingesting caffeine before play or contest gives one athlete an unfair advantage over another, and whether the drug (and its most popular vehicle, coffee) should be banned from competitive sports.

Some say no: I say...well, to be honest, I don't know. The coffee-loving side of me insists that, when taken in moderation as a regular part of the diet, coffee is no more or less impactful than over-the-counter vitamin supplements. But the less-caffeine-addled (and more athletic) side of me concedes that a drug's a drug, and any substance that alters performance for the better suggests an unfair advantage indeed. Personally and anecdotally, I don't always have coffee before a regular ol' morning run, but I do tend to enjoy a cup before I race; my average race pace is way faster than my average jog pace, and while I can't be sure it's the cuppa joe that does the trick, I do admit to not wanting to find out by cutting it from my pre-race ritual.

But that's me, and my races are recreational: What does the addition of a little caffeine to an Olympian's contest preparation mean? Should there be a drug test for speed-boosting espresso or high-jump pumping pumpkin-spice lattes?

What do you think: Should caffeine from coffee (as opposed to, say, pills) be banned or regulated when it comes to sports? Or doesn't it matter?