Caffeine is one of the few ergogenic substances backed by science, but it has different effects depending on the type of exercise. While its effects on endurance and strength have been widely studied, the role of caffeine for combat sports remains relatively unknown.
What are combat sports?
Combat sports is a broad category of disciplines that involve one-to one fighting. This includes traditional martial arts, such as taekwondo and judo, but also boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, mixed martial arts (MMA) and fencing. Combat sports can involve grappling, striking, or a combination of both.
Recommendations for caffeine supplementation
Common recommendations for caffeine as a performance-enhancing supplement are 3-6mg per kg bodyweight taken 15-30 minutes before exercise.
Caffeine for grappling
A study with judo players measured the effect of caffeine supplementation by counting the number of throws during matches. The researchers concluded that 6 and 9mg per kg of caffeine were more effective than 3mg or no caffeine at all. They also found that athletes who normally consumed caffeine needed a bigger dose (9mg per kg) to get benefits. Finally, caffeine had no effect in the perceived exertion of the athletes (1).
Caffeine for striking
Scientists tested the frequency and force of punches of professional MMA fighters. The athletes consumed 5mg/kg body weight of caffeine or placebo and did 3 sets of 15 seconds punching with 45 seconds rest, starting 1 hour after caffeine ingestion. Neither the frequency nor force of the strikes increased with caffeine supplementation (2).
Caffeine and aerobic performance in combat sports
Aerobic performance refers to exercise capacity fuelled by the oxidation of fuels such as glucose and fat. All the “cardio” aspects of exercise fall in this category.
One study analysed the effects of caffeine vs bicarbonate vs caffeine and bicarbonate on the aerobic performance of karate athletes. The researchers concluded that both caffeine and bicarbonate were effective, and the combo was not more effective than either supplement alone (3).
Another paper looking at taekwondo athletes analysed the effect of 5mg/kg body weight on metabolism and performance. The authors found no improvements in performance even though the results indicated a greater rate of glycolysis (glucose breakdown) generating energy available for exercise (4).
A similar result was found in judo athletes who consumed 5mg/kg body weight caffeine prior to several tests. Their glycolytic metabolism was increased, but this did not translate to increased neuromuscular performance. On the other hand, caffeine helped delay the onset of fatigue (5).
Caffeine and anaerobic performance in combat sports
Anaerobic performance refers to the work that can be done in the absence of oxygen for the generation of energy. This involves shorts bursts of very intense activity.
A paper looking at the anaerobic performance of Olympic-level boxers found a positive effect of caffeine supplementation at a dose of 6mg/kg body weight prior to non-sport specific anaerobic tests (6).
Caffeine after weight cutting
Weight cutting is common in martial arts and other weight class sports. Normally athletes train at a slightly higher body weight than their category and lose weight in the days or hours before the weigh in to fit in their category.
A small but interesting study analysed the effect of caffeine in judo performance after a weight cut of approximately 5% of the athlete’s body weight. The participants (brown and black belts) consumed caffeine in capsule form at a dose of 6 mg/kg body weight or placebo before performing judo-specific tests (throws). Caffeine did not improve performance compared to placebo but it did reduce perceived exertion (7).
Caffeine and reaction time
As with most athletic disciplines, reaction time is important in combat sports, both when attacking and defending.
A study with taekwondo athletes showed that caffeine in doses of 5mg/kg body weight can reduce reaction time (i.e. help athletes react quicker) and increase the intensity of combat (8).
Summary and recommendations
The studies investigating the effects of caffeine in combat sports are few and small. Most of them have not found significant improvements in overall performance. However, there are some potential benefits of caffeine supplementation for these athletes, including improved reaction time, reduced perceived exertion and increased intensity of combat.
It is possible that different athletes need different doses of caffeine to experience benefits. This could be based on factors such as individual differences in caffeine metabolism and average caffeine consumption. It is also possible that different forms of caffeine produce different physiological or psychological effects on performance.
If you participate in combat sports, try a few different types of caffeine (e.g. capsules, gum, shots) in different doses trying to keep all other variables (diet and program) roughly the same. If you are a competing athlete, I recommend you run a search in Informed Sports before consuming a supplement.
Check my article on caffeine and performance to learn more about caffeine as a molecule, types of supplements, mechanisms of action, etc.
- Durkalec-Michalski K, Nowaczyk PM, Główka N, Grygiel A. Dose-dependent effect of caffeine supplementation on judo-specific performance and training activity: a randomized placebo-controlled crossover trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2019;16(1):38.
- de Azevedo AP, Guerra MA, Jr., Caldas LC, Guimaraes-Ferreira L. Acute Caffeine Ingestion did not Enhance Punch Performance in Professional Mixed-Martial Arts Athletes. Nutrients. 2019;11(6).
- Rezaei S, Akbari K, Gahreman DE, Sarshin A, Tabben M, Kaviani M, et al. Caffeine and sodium bicarbonate supplementation alone or together improve karate performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2019;16(1):44.
- Lopes-Silva JP, Silva Santos JFd, Branco BHM, Abad CCC, Oliveira LFd, Loturco I, et al. Caffeine Ingestion Increases Estimated Glycolytic Metabolism during Taekwondo Combat Simulation but Does Not Improve Performance or Parasympathetic Reactivation. PLoS ONE 2015;10(11):e0142078. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142078.
- Athayde M, Lima Kons R, Detanico D. Can Caffeine Intake Improve Neuromuscular and Technical-Tactical Performance During Judo Matches? J Strength Cond Res. 2018;32(11):3095-102.
- San Juan Ferrer A, Lopez-Samanes A, Jodra P, Valenzuela PL, Rueda J, Herreros P, et al. Caffeine Supplementation Improves Anaerobic Performance and Neuromuscular Efficiency and Fatigue in Olympic-Level Boxers. Nutrients. 2019;11:2120.
- Lopes-Silva JP, Felippe LJ, Silva-Cavalcante MD, Bertuzzi R, Lima-Silva AE. Caffeine ingestion after rapid weight loss in judo athletes reduces perceived effort and increases plasma lactate concentration without improving performance. Nutrients. 2014;6(7):2931-45.
- Santos VG, Santos VR, Felippe LJ, Almeida JW, Jr., Bertuzzi R, Kiss MA, et al. Caffeine reduces reaction time and improves performance in simulated-contest of taekwondo. Nutrients. 2014;6(2):637-49.
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