Can caffeine improve your workout?

The other Vitamin C

Many of us love our caffeine and we can’t imagine starting our day without it.

In fact, it is estimated that 85% of us Americans consume at least one caffeinated drink a day.

Whether we’re drinking coffee, tea, or a sugary energy drink, most of us have come to depend on caffeine to wake us up in the morning and keep us going throughout the day. Here in the U.S. we consume an average of 135mg a day, which honestly seems a bit low to me considering the amount of Starbucks my kids consume daily.

So why do we drink so much caffeine?

I would have to think it’s because so many of us are exhausted.

“A morning without coffee is like sleep.”

Studies have shown that many of us simply aren’t sleeping enough, especially if we’re stressed out or exercising intensely.

We feel like we don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done, and then after collapsing on the couch and binging a few hours of Netflix in the evening trying to unwind, we end up getting 5-6 hours of sleep before waking up and doing it all over again.

Not just about staying awake.

Many professional athletes use caffeine to give them that slight edge to boost their performance, while the rest of us often turn to caffeine hoping to motivate ourselves to just get to the gym and somehow make it through our workout.

It turns out that caffeine can not only give us a boost of energy, but it also decreases our perception of effort and blocks fatigue along with the pain receptors in our body. 

Although the reasons for this are currently unknown, caffeine also seems to affect the lower body more than the upper body when it comes to helping you out during your workouts. The pain/fatiguing reducing effect of caffeine might partially explain the difference. After all, most lower body exercises (ex. squats, deadlifts) involve many of the largest muscles in our body and are far more taxing on the body than say bicep curls. So any reduction in the amount of pain/exertion that caffeine may provide, the better.

So more energy, more strength, more speed, more distance, more reps, all with less pain and fatigue — what’s not to like?

Too much of a good thing

When it comes to reaping the benefits of caffeine in both your daily life and your workouts, the only real issue is the fact that the more you use it, the less it works.

“I don’t have a problem with caffeine. I have a problem without it.”

That doesn’t mean that caffeine is somehow ineffective, it simply means that your body will adapt over time and you’ll build up a physical tolerance. This also means that you will need to consume increasing amounts of caffeine over time in order to receive the same benefits.

That’s fine to a point, but there is also only so much caffeine your body can handle at one time. Not to mention that people who consume a significant amount of caffeine daily often experience withdrawal-like symptoms such as throbbing headaches and increased fatigue if they don’t get their usual dose.

So what’s the answer here, if you want to receive the benefits of caffeine without getting yourself locked into some type of addiction spiral that ends up making you feel worse than before?

Everything in moderation

I’ll admit that I continue to deal with this issue and I’ve had to make some adjustments along the way. I’ve found that if I drink my typical 3-4 cups of coffee in the morning/afternoon, any pre-workout caffeine burst of energy is sadly non-existent when I’m trying to get motivated for my late afternoon workout. 

So I’ve had to cut down significantly on my morning coffee routine (switching to half-caff and limiting myself to 2 cups) to bring down my caffeine tolerance level to a more normal level.

One bit of good news is that research has shown that even if you don’t “feel” the effects of your pre-workout caffeine, you may still get some of the other benefits from consuming caffeine before your workout. This is because, even though we may not receive the same burst of energy, it appears that we don’t necessarily build up a tolerance to the pain-reducing effects of caffeine.

How much caffeine should you be taking before a workout?

First of all, let me stress that nobody needs caffeine in their pre-workout cocktail.

Like any other supplement, caffeine is something that can be helpful in the right situation, but sometimes I think we get so carried away with our complex supplement routines, that we forget that we can also function perfectly well without them.

Now having said that, the amount of caffeine you may need depends not only on how much you typically consume daily, your genetics, but also on how much you weigh. For example, someone who weighs 130lbs and drinks one cup of tea a day is going to need a lot less caffeine to get fired up for their workout than someone like me, who weighs 200lbs and regularly drinks a half a pot of coffee a day (yes, I may have a problem).

In other words, it really depends on how much caffeine you usually consume, how big you are, and what type of workout you have planned that day.

Most of the research studies that have been done on the benefits of caffeine on athletes have been dosed at 5-6mg/kg (1 kilogram = 2.205 pounds) 30-60 minutes before your workout.

Now before you start firing up the espresso machine you have to realize that this is a lot of caffeine. For someone who weighs 200lbs that works out to 450-540mg, which is roughly 4-5 cups of strong coffee consumed all at one time. 

That’s a lot, even for a habitual user like me.

Instead, I would recommend most people start at 2-3mg/kg and see how it goes. This is definitely one of those situations where everyone is going to be different and more is not necessarily better.

Remember also if you are already drinking several cups of coffee or cans of energy drinks a day, you probably aren’t going to get the same boost of energy before your workout as someone who doesn’t regularly consume caffeine daily. So it might be a good idea to cut down on your caffeine consumption throughout the rest of the week to give you a bigger boost before your hardest workouts.

References:

Davis JK, Green JM. “Caffeine and anaerobic performance: ergogenic value and mechanisms of action.” Sports Med. 2009;39(10):813-32.

de Salles Painelli V, Teixeira EL, Tardone B, Moreno M, Morandini J, Larrain VH, Pires FO. Habitual Caffeine Consumption Does Not Interfere With the Acute Caffeine Supplementation Effects on Strength Endurance and Jumping Performance in Trained Individuals. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2021 Jul 1;31(4):321-328.

Drewnowski A, Rehm CD. “Sources of Caffeine in Diets of US Children and Adults: Trends by Beverage Type and Purchase Location.” Nutrients. 2016 Mar 10;8(3):154.

Grgic J, Grgic I, Pickering C, Schoenfeld BJ, Bishop DJ, Pedisic Z. “Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance-an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses.” Br J Sports Med. 2020 Jun;54(11):681-688.

Southward K, Rutherfurd-Markwick K, Badenhorst C, Ali A. The Role of Genetics in Moderating the Inter-Individual Differences in the Ergogenicity of Caffeine. Nutrients. 2018 Sep 21;10(10):1352.

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