Caffeinated gum is making an impact within the sports nutrition market. With expectations of reaching $52 billion in sales by 2020, this energy aid’s advantage comes from a quick delivery.
“You get similar effects to gels and tablets, but it’s absorbed faster, and you may not need as big of a dose,” Carl Paton, PhD, an Associate Professor at New Zealand’s Eastern Institute of Technology, told The Washington Post.
Due to its performance-enhancing quality, the World Anti-Doping Agency had limited caffeine intake until 2004. That limit has since been lowered because caffeine is so common, paving the way for the caffeinated gum craze. However, the gum is banned at the NCAA level.
For an elite marathon runner like Tina Muir, the gum is a welcome addition to her routine. During races, Muir fuels with a carbohydrate drink and then uses the gum for a quick jolt later in the run.
“I have tried caffeinated gels before and liked them, but they took a while to take effect,” she said. “It’s tough to wait 10 minutes when you are tired and in need of a boost in the later miles of a race.”
Along with delivering energy, caffeine can help performance by making physical challenges feel easier and reducing feelings of fatigue.
“I took the gum at mile 14 of a 20-mile progression run, where I had to continuously pick up my pace,” Muir said. “I noticed an immediate, significant difference with the gum. In particular, I was clear-minded and could tackle any doubts I had at that point in the run.”
Muir’s experience is not just anecdotal—similar results have been shown in the literature. For instance, a study conducted by Paton in 2014 showed the biggest gain from using the gum came in the final third of a 30-kilometer time trial. The study analyzed race performances for both male and female cyclists.
“The gum improved both endurance and sprinting power at the end of the effort, most likely through an increase in nervous system activation,” Paton said.
One stipulation for the gum is that high caffeine consumption can lead to building up a tolerance. Therefore, athletes who have a tolerance wouldn’t benefit from the extra caffeine. Yet, these results may not be permanent.
“It may be that several days of caffeine withdrawal can re-sensitize an individual to its performance benefits,” said Ross Beaumont, a researcher from the School of Sport, Exercise, and Health Sciences at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K., who recently studied the topic. “However, you might then turn up on race day with severe withdrawal symptoms, and performance would be suboptimal anyhow.”
In general, athletes who typically consume one or two cups of caffeine each day should still see a boost from the gum. Caffeine sensitivity differs, so trying out the gum before a big race is recommended.
“Few people will have a negative experience with it, but it is important to test it out in training to see how much you need for a positive effect,” Paton said.
All in all, although caffeinated gum may help with giving a quick boost of energy, researchers remind athletes not to forget basic fueling.
“In a major endurance event, you can’t survive on the gum alone,” Paton said. “You’ll need carbohydrates, too.”