You don’t have to look far (sometimes just in the mirror!) to find someone who is a self-diagnosed coffee addict. Most of us will swear that if we don’t start our morning with a cup, we will be completely useless the rest day. It almost seems as if our lives have a tendency to revolve around this little magical drink: it’s the one thing we can’t live without in the mornings; it’s a good excuse for a break during your work day; even marriages have started out with a simple, “hey, we should grab a cup of coffee together sometime.” Yes, we are very familiar with the wonderful effects that coffee, and more specifically caffeine, has on our daily lives, but only slightly less well known is the beneficial effects it has on athletic performance as well.
Actually, the performance enhancing benefits of caffeine are so pronounced, that it wasn’t until about 2004 that caffeine was actually listed as a banned substance on the World Anti-Doping list. However, due to its pervasive popularity in the social realm on a global scale, it was taken off of the list because it became difficult to establish an appropriate “threshold level” between social use and abuse. As a result, it’s been documented that over 75% of elite athletes use caffeine to some degree. So, what are all these hidden benefits of the caffeine you can find in a simple cup of Joe? We’re glad you asked.
One of the most researched benefits to caffeine, and the reason for its popularity among endurance athletes, is improved circulation. A recent study conducted in Japan found that as little as 5oz of regularly caffeinated coffee has the ability to increase blood flow by 30% over a 75-minute period. This comes in handy in the gym because if you can have a heightened ability to deliver blood to the muscles, more oxygen and nutrients are able to get into the muscles, allowing you to lift heavier, and run longer.
Additionally, caffeine has been shown to literally take the pain away when you are working out! Researchers at the University of Illinois discovered that ingesting 2-3 cups of regular black coffee one hour before an intense 30 minute strength workout reduced the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) that the subjects felt post-exercise.2 RPE is the scale (from 1 to 10) of how tired/in pain you are feeling during and after exercise. The conclusion that was made from the study was that the energy provided from the caffeine helped the subjects push harder through their workout than they normally would have, thus making the workout seem less intense than it otherwise would have.
Another wonderful discovery, found in the Journal of Applied Physiology uncovered that taking caffeine along with your post-workout meal/supplement, caused “a 66% increase in muscle glycogen” 4 hours after an intense workout, compared to just having the meal/supplement alone.2 Glycogen is the term used to refer to the glucose that is stored within your muscles that is readily available any time you do a resistance workout, and some kinds of cardio exercise. Therefore, increased glycogen means increased stored energy, meaning you can go heavier on your lifts, and longer on your runs without fatiguing as quickly!
Lastly, caffeine has been shown to not only help with immediate performance in the gym or on the track, but also to cut down the effects of age-related issues as well. In an animal study conducted at Coventry University in the UK, sport scientists found that small doses of caffeine had a muscle-preserving effect on both skeletal muscle as well the diaphragm.2 This result led the scientists to conclude that, in moderate chronic doses, caffeine might have the ability to stave off certain age-related injuries as we get older.
Now, before you jump out of your seat, head to Starbucks, and order a gallon of pumpkin spice latte with extra cream and sugar, there are some key points to keep in mind so that you don’t suffer any adverse effects of caffeine supplementation. In all the studies, used for this article, the caffeine dose that was delivered was in the form of “regularly-caffeinated black coffee” or in a capsule. So stay away from the fancy coffee drinks, and don’t add any cream and sugar because that will just inhibit your performance. Additionally, the high end for the recommended does of pre-workout caffeine supplementation is 6mg/kg of body weight (there is about 60-180mg of caffeine in a 6oz regular cup of drip coffee), and should be taken 60-90min before you start exercising for full benefit. Lastly, there are a few performance-related side effects that you will want to watch out for as well, namely dehydration and sleeplessness. Because caffeine has a diuretic effect, be sure to drink plenty of water pre-, during, and post- exercise, and generally throughout your whole day, as well as avoid caffeine consumption less than 6 hours before you plan to go to bed as it could disrupt your sleep patterns.
Although finding extra reasons to keep up that coffee habit you’ve been cultivating for years wasn’t really something you actually needed to hear, the athletic performance-enhancing effects of caffeine supplementation are still fun to learn about! From improved strength and stamina in the gym, to general longevity, caffeine really is the real deal. No longer should you feel the need to spend unnecessary bucks on over-priced (and over-sugared) pre workout supplements; as it turns out, “Folgers in your cup” is the only thing you need to keep your workouts going strong.
Joe Gernetzke CSCS