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Can coffee fuel your workout?

Does drinking coffee enhance exercise performance? Researchers have consistently shown that coffee’s high energy ingredient, caffeine, is a well-established ergogenic aid, with performance-enhancing effects across a range of sports and exercises. But much of this research has used caffeine supplements or powder, not coffee, as the test substance. For elite athletes who don’t want to take caffeine supplements—not to mention weekend warriors and erratic exercisers—can a regular cup of joe have the same effects? 


Let’s take a look at the research.


Small improvement, big difference


First, caffeine fiends will be buzzed to know that the substance does indeed boost exercise performance. In an umbrella review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers summarized findings from all meta-analyses that explored the effects of caffeine on athletic performance. 


“We found caffeine can enhance our ability to run and cycle for longer periods, or to complete a given distance in a shorter time frame. It could also allow us to perform more repetitions with a given weight in the gym, or to increase the total weight lifted,” the authors wrote in an explanatory article on TheConversation.com

They found that caffeine boosted sports performance by about 2% and 6%.

“This may not seem like much in the context of everyday life. But particularly in competitive sports, relatively small improvements in performance can make a big difference,” the authors noted. 

How does it work? 


We all know that the jolt of caffeine in your morning coffee can make you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—or rudimentarily functional, at least. After all, people around the world drink about 1.4 billion cups of coffee every day, according to the International Coffee Organization.

But how does caffeine enhance exercise performance? 


Besides improving alertness and concentration, caffeine enhances exercise performance by several mechanisms, such as reducing the perception of exertion and pain, as well as increasing motor unit recruitment. 


“Alongside its direct, well-established ergogenic effects, consumption of caffeine can also offset the fatigue associated with regular, frequent training sessions, mask training-induced soreness, or overcome sleep disruption caused by early morning training sessions and jet lag,” wrote doctoral students Craig Pickering, School of Sport and Wellbeing, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, and Jozo Grgic, Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia, in a recent review article in International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

Experts recommend ingesting caffeine 45 to 90 minutes before exercise to take advantage of its ergogenic effects.


Is coffee as good as caffeine? 


Studies that investigate the effects of caffeine often use caffeine anhydrous, a highly concentrated caffeine powder typically found in tablet or capsule form. Just one teaspoon of caffeine anhydrous is equivalent to 28 cups of coffee, according to the FDA. But athletes also ingest caffeine through caffeinated sports drinks, gels, bars, gum, and even caffeinated sprays and mouth rinses. 


So, is coffee as good as those methods for a caffeine fix before a workout or competition? 

While the evidence isn’t totally consistent, caffeine and coffee appear to be equally beneficial for improving endurance performance when caffeine doses are matched, Pickering and Grgic found. For example, they pointed to a study in which cyclists who drank coffee (providing 5 mg/kg of caffeine) or took caffeine in a capsule (also 5 mg/kg) demonstrated similar improvements in aerobic endurance performance. 


Caffeine and coffee also perform similarly for resistance and high-intensity exercise, although caffeine in any form is not as ergogenic for these types of exercise. 


Drawbacks of coffee as an ergogenic aid


Although coffee may provide similar ergogenic effects as caffeine anhydrous and is probably more widely available, drinking coffee as an exercise booster has its drawbacks. 

You need to drink a lot. To improve performance, you’ll likely need a 3- to 6-mg/kg dose of caffeine. That’s about the range of what the cyclists drank (5 mg/kg) in the trial mentioned above, which worked out to be 600 ml of coffee—equivalent to a Venti-sized beverage at Starbucks (ie, 20 oz). For habitual caffeine users,

“caffeine doses of 6 mg/kg might be required to elicit a performance benefit, which represents over four cups of coffee for a 70-kg athlete, potentially comprising over a liter of fluid,” Pickering and Grgic wrote.
“Consumption of such high amounts of fluid has the potential to lead to increased sensations of fullness during exercise, increases in body weight—an important consideration for weight class and weight-bearing sports—and may contribute to an increased risk of hyponatremia, particularly in endurance athletes.”

Caffeine amounts can be inconsistent. The concentration of caffeine in coffee can be highly variable, and not just between coffee brands but even in the same brand over time. The dose of caffeine in coffee can also vary based on the type of coffee bean, the way it’s prepared, and the size of the cup.


Hot coffee isn’t cool. Coffee is often consumed hot, which may affect an athlete’s thermoregulatory control during exercise, especially in warm and/or humid temperatures. Consequently, hot coffee could impair an athlete’s exercise capacity and performance. But then again, if the coffee is consumed 30 to 60 minutes beforehand, any increase in core temperature may dissipate prior to starting exercise, Pickering and Grgic noted. Also, there’s always the option of iced coffee. 


It can upset your stomach. Although both caffeine and coffee can irritate the gastric tract, the potential for gastric discomfort is potentially higher with coffee. 


Bottom line


For athletes and coffee junkies, or even just everyday coffee drinkers, the brew appears to be a useful source of caffeine for regular training. For competitions, more controlled caffeine doses that require less liquid or concentration may work better, Pickering and Grgic advised. 

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