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Chances are you’re wise to the fact that caffeine is a performance enhancer. The most widely used “drug” in the world has been shown in study after study to help athletes run faster, bike harder, lift more, and jump higher. But gone are the days of waiting in line for a barista to shout your name.
Most recently, in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, nine men were tested in the squat and bench press to find the effects of caffeine ingestion on resistance exercise performance. Ingesting coffee or decaf coffee plus caffeine vs. a placebo, the test subjects were able to lift significantly more weight in the squat, but there were no significant differences in the total weight in the bench. The study revealed that coffee and decaffeinated coffee plus caffeine can improve performance when doing a resistance exercise.
In recent years, caffeine has been popping up in all kinds of sports fuels, from gels to chews. And the latest delivery method promises an even faster jolt: chewing gum. Run Gum, created by two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds, contains 50mg of caffeine per piece, along with taurine (an amino acid found in meat and fish that supports brain development) and B vitamins. That gives a two-piece serving about as much caffeine as a standard cup of Joe. Jolt Energy Gum has 40mg caffeine per piece plus guarana (a South American seed with twice as much caffeine as coffee) and ginseng, and Military Energy Gum packs 100mg caffeine per piece.
Why gum? “It [absorbs] faster than coffee or gels,” says Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., a professor of exercise metabolism at Loughborough University in the U.K. and a leading researcher on caffeine and exercise performance. The caffeine is absorbed into the bloodstream straight through the lining of your cheeks. Plus, absorption through the skin has the potential to increase its bioavailability, giving you more oomph from fewer milligrams. Also, chewing any kind of gum has been shown to increase alertness, lower stress, and improve performance.
So far the data looks promising. One recent study from New Zealand found that caffeinated gum gave cyclists a stronger final push, increasing their power output during the final 10km of a 30km workout by nearly 4%.
Still, there’s more research to be done to figure out the ideal timing and dosage. A 2010 study, in which athletes popped a piece five minutes before performing intervals, saw a 6% performance improvement, while the New Zealand study found that it took about 20 minutes for caffeine to kick into gear. Though the caffeine will stimulate, research suggests a tolerance to caffeine can occur in as little as four days if taken daily.
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But a stick of gum may not work for everyone. The New Zealand researchers noted that while caffeinated gum did improve cycling performance, only 13 subjects experienced the boost. Meanwhile, five had a negative reaction and were nonresponsive. Researchers suggest the variability may be caused by differences in how people metabolize caffeine—akin to how one person can cap off dinner with a cappuccino and sleep like a baby, while another gets the jitters.
To find your ideal kick, Jeukendrup recommends starting with lower doses and experimenting.
“Caffeine works with as little as 3 milligrams per kilogram,” he says. Try it when the stakes are low, during a training run or ride—ideally one where you have access to restrooms, given caffeine’s effects on digestion. And don’t forget to hydrate. While the water in coffee offsets its dehydrating effects, that’s not so of caffeinated gum.