It turns out Red Bull doesn’t give you wings. The basis of the recent lawsuit was that its advertising fraudulently claimed benefits in athletic performance and concentration over and above caffeinated drinks alone, as if that was the only reason Red Bull asked a premium price.
The most interesting claim may be this one: Benjamin Careathers, a regular consumer of the fizzy drink, sued the company for false advertising, arguing that after 10 years drinking Red Bull he neither had wings nor any enhanced athletic or intellectual performance. This claim seems vulnerable on the basis of a basic understanding of what caffeine does.
Does caffeine boost performance?
Yes, caffeine improves performance, but just on what you do right afterward. (By contrast, steroids confer lasting benefits.) Even modest amounts of caffeine, immediately before a workout, can improve performance in that workout, which is why caffeine is the basis for “preworkout” supplements, and is a common ingredient in easy nutrition options for runners, such as gels and blocks.
Caffeine doesn’t really “make you better” (and of course doesn’t give you wings), but it perks you up and lets you train longer. A person who uses caffeine strategically can see cumulative performance gains … if they follow through on a good training program. That is, it can help you make the most of your training, and if you stick with the program, you’ll get lasting benefits over time.
There are some other claims for how energy is used in the body with caffeine on board, and the evidence for them is fuzzier but is still often repeated.
Should I use caffeine?
Maybe. Some people really hate how caffeine makes them feel, so they probably won’t get much good out of it. Some people (like me) don’t feel any different with caffeine on board, but it probably contributes chemically anyway — the effect in athletes is noticed both with regular caffeine users and with non-users.
You don’t need much, either, for benefit in your workout, and normal dietary amounts of it don’t show up on “banned drugs” lists, so there is certainly no need to feel bad about having a coffee or even a Coca Cola before your workout. If a little pick-me-up makes the difference between getting your exercise or just going home and sitting on the couch, it’s a good deal. As with postworkout drinks, like Gatorade or chocolate milk, the main issue to be aware of is whether you need the calories.