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How much coffee will elite athletes be able to drink?

Noah Kaufman
March 10, 2017

Caffeine is the most popular stimulant in the world. Recent research has found that as high as 90 percent of the world’s population consumes it in some form every day. But even though most people on Earth are down with coffee and Red Bull, one group will be stopped from getting too much of a caffeine fix: Elite athletes. Last week Vladimir Uiba, a Russian microbiologist who heads up medical treatment for elite Russian athletes, said that the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) has placed caffeine on a waiting list to be banned. “Theoretically it can happen this year,” Uiba told TASS. It’s worth noting the source here, since Russian athletes have had many results vacated and many medals stripped recently for doping. And the outlet Uiba spoke with was, at one time, the official state news outlet of the Soviet Union. But WADA confirmed to the Washington Post that caffeine is indeed on their watch list for 2017 and will be studied through September, at which point the organization will decide what to do with it. And perhaps that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. After all, it was on the banned list as recently as 2014. 

Research has found that caffeine enhanced performance, particularly in endurance events, including one study that saw men improve by 4.2 seconds in a 1500 meter run. And while that may not sound like a ton to non-elite runners, it was the difference between winning and finishing in the back of the pack in the four most recent Olympic finals. But WADA pulled caffeine from the banned list because it decided that performance-enhancing doses of the stimulant were almost indistinguishable from normal consumption. That may say more about our collective caffeine addiction than anything else. 

But will rebanning caffeine force elite athletes all over the world to give up the joys of a morning cup of coffee? Probably not. During the first incarnation of the caffeine ban, the amount of caffeine in someone’s system to trigger a positive test would require drinking 6-8 cups of coffee in a few hours. And while I might have done that yesterday, I’m not sure it qualifies as typical coffee consumption. Even in Finland, which consumes more coffee than any other country in the world, they only average about two and a half cups of coffee a day. Plus, from personal experience, I can tell you that if you drink six cups of coffee before going for a run, you’ll have issues that are far worse than failing a drug test.