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A New Study Shows That Coffee Can Boost Your Workout Performance

Updated on June 12, 2017
Noa Keshet profile image

Noa is dancing enthusiast, a Zumba instructor, a mom and a PhD in Bioinformatics.

Caffeine is well known as one of the world’s most prevalent mind-altering substances. Millions of people worldwide consume it in mornings to bump-start a foggy brain. It is also well known that scientific data supports the fact that caffeine enhances athletic performance.

However, it is currently generally assumed that taking caffeine prior to a sports event in order to boost performance would only work if the athlete abstained from coffee for days or weeks before the occasion.

A new study published (on May 2017) in the Journal of Applied Physiology dispels these beliefs about caffeine and athletic performance. Rather, the new study's findings support the claim that someone can be an avid coffee drinker and still enjoy a caffeine performance boost for an event.

Caffeine Effects in the Body

Caffeine is a fat-soluble chemical that can easily pass from the bloodstream into the brain. The brain's activity is controlled by chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which can either stimulate brain cells or calm them. Adenosine is a neuromodulator that has specific receptors. When adenosine binds to its receptors, neuronal activity decreases, and you feel tired. Caffeine attaches to the adenosine receptors in the brain, blocking the calming effect of Adenosine. Thus, the overall effect of caffeine on the brain is stimulation.

The amplified activity of brain cells under the effect of caffeine leads to a secondary rise in the amount of epinephrine in the body. Epinephrine, also known as adrenalin, is the "fight or flight" hormone and has a further stimulating effect on the brain and body. The surge in adrenalin increases your heart rate, gets your blood pumping and even opens up your airways. Moreover, it affects dopamine levels by stopping its reabsorption in the brain, which makes you feel happy. This dopamine stimulation is also the aspect of coffee that makes it somewhat addictive.

The benefits of consuming caffeine before a workout

  1. Boosts your metabolism and helps you burn fat - Coffee stimulates the adrenal glands, causing adrenaline to be released. With increased levels of adrenaline in the blood stream, more stored fat is broken down into fatty acids. This allows the body to use more fat as an energy resource.
  2. Let's you exercise for a longer duration – by allowing the body to utilize stored fat for energy, caffeine helps conserve other energy resources, such as glycogen. By conserving glycogen for future use a person can exercise for a longer time before fatigue sets in. In fact, studies have shown that an hour after taking in 330mg of caffeine cyclists were able to travel 20% further compared to ingesting no caffeine at all.
  3. Helps with weight loss – A Spanish study, published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, found that consumption of a moderately high caffeine dose before exercising increased post-exercise energy expenditure. It was shown that when trained athletes ingested caffeine before working out, they burned about 15% more calories during the three hours after exercising.
  4. Improves blood circulation - A better circulation means that the muscles get a higher oxygen supply. Japanese scientists found that drinking one cup of coffee resulted in a 30% increase in blood flow for the next 75 minutes when compared with people who drank decaffeinated coffee. All the people that participated in this study were not regular coffee drinkers.
  5. Reduces perceived muscle pain - In a research conducted at the University of Illinois, participants were given the caffeine equivalent of two to three cups of coffee one hour before a 30-minute session of high-intensity exercise. The scientists measured the levels of perceived muscle pain during the workout. The conclusion was that caffeine reduced perceived muscle pain. Less pain in a weight training session can help you manage that one last hard repetition.
  6. Improves memory - Scientists from Johns Hopkins University found that caffeine enhances memory up to 24 hours after consumption. In this study, people were asked to memorize a series of images. Half the participants were given 200mg of caffeine 5 minutes after memorizing the images, while the rest were given a placebo. The next day the group that ingested the caffeine performed significantly better in remembering the images. This memory boost can improve workouts that entail needing to recall specific exercises or routines, like a dance class where choreographies need to be memorized.

A new study dispels the myth that habitual caffeine consumption impacts the performance response to acute caffeine supplementation.

The study was conducted by Bruno Gualano, a professor of physiology and nutrition at the human performance lab in University of São Paulo in Brazil. Professor Gualano wanted to tests the prevalent hypothesis that athletes would benefit from taking a caffeine supplement before an event only if they abstained from drinking caffeinated drinks for days prior to the event.

Forty endurance-trained male cyclists were divided into three groups according to their daily habits of caffeine consumption:

  1. The low-caffeine group averaged about a cup or less of coffee or other caffeinated drinks (tea, cola, Red Bull, etc.) per day.
  2. The moderate-caffeine group drank the equivalent of about two cups of coffee on most days.
  3. The high-caffeine group consumed three cups or more on most days.

How many caffeinated drinks do you consume per day?

See results

The 40 cyclists were summoned to the human performance lab on three separate occasions. At each visit, they were asked to complete a specialized type of time trial, during which they cycled as hard as possible until they managed to burn through 450 calories.

  1. On the first trial participants were given a 400 milligrams caffeine pill, one hour prior to the ride. This amount of caffeine is equivalent to about four cups of regular coffee.
  2. On the second trial they swallowed an identical-looking placebo pill.
  3. On the third occasion they did not receive any kind of tablet prior to starting the exercise.

The experiment was conducted in a double-blind manner, and the participant did not know what kind of pills they were given.

The researchers compared the times that it took the cyclists to complete the same task on each of the three occasions. Most of the riders performed best on the day when they were given the caffeine tablet. They pedaled harder and faster after the ingestion of caffeine, managing to gain a statistically significant 3.3% improvement in their performance time.

The important result of this study is that the improvement in performance time was achieved regardless of the habitual caffeine consumption of the participants. All three groups, the light, moderate and heavy coffee drinkers showed an enhanced performance. All of them did not make any changes to their coffee drinking habits, and still they achieved better cycling times with caffeine supplementation.

This finding suggests that athletes can enjoy a performance boost from caffeine without eliminating caffeinated drinks from their diet. Many athletes would probably welcome not being forced to suffer through days of caffeine withdrawal prior to an event.

Further thoughts

Before we start drinking large quantities of caffeinated drinks at our next workout sessions there are several important points to consider:

  1. The participants in this research were given a relatively high dose of caffeine. High dosages of caffeine may have disagreeable and even dangerous side effects, including upset stomach, increased urination, increased blood pressure, headaches and even heart palpitations.
  2. This study was conducted solely on men. Caffeine has been previously shown to affect women differently than it does men. For example, researchers from Bristol University concluded that women in stressful situations are benefited by caffeine. In the same study, it was also shown that men functioning under the same levels of stress are actually hindered by the caffeine.
  3. To be more precise, the participants in the new study were very fit young men. What about those of us who are not as fit? Would regular people that exercise at moderate intensity levels enjoy a similar performance boost, regardless of the amounts of caffeine that they consume daily?

For myself, I usually enjoy a latte before Zumba and aerobic dance classes (my preferred types of workout). I think that drinking coffee before exercising helps me to feel more alert and energized, and improves the intensity of my workouts. What about you? What are your thoughts about drinking coffee before exercising?

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