Your morning cup of joe — aka lifeblood, aka go-go juice — helps you focus throughout the workday, but did you know that drinking coffee before a workout might also help you jump higher, run faster and lift heavier?
Caffeine is a well-studied ergogenic aid, or a substance that can help you exercise harder and longer. That's why many pre-workout supplements on the market like bars, gels and chews have added caffeine.
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But despite coffee being the primary source of caffeine in our diets, per a March 2016 Nutrients report, very few studies have actually tested coffee specifically when looking at caffeine's effect on exercise; the majority of the research has used a crystallized form of caffeine instead. That said, an October 2019 study in Nutrients found that drinking coffee before exercise can help boost performance in both men and women.
Is coffee your pre-workout fuel of choice? Here's everything you need to know before sipping your java.
The Benefits of Drinking Coffee Before a Workout
You may think of coffee as your "motivation" to help you start your workout, but it can actually help you throughout your exercise routine in a number of ways. Here are the four major ways research shows coffee benefits your workout.
1. It Helps With Focus and Coordination
One of caffeine's undisputed effects is its action as a stimulant on your central nervous system. This is what stimulates that "awake" feeling in the morning and helps you focus on the tasks at hand, including exercise.
"Since caffeine increases alertness, a perceived improvement in cognitive performance may translate into greater focus on an athletic event," says Kelly Jones, RD, LDN, a Philadelphia-based sports dietitian.
It may also help increase your coordination and focus — if you've ever run on a treadmill, you know how important this is.
2. It Can Decrease Your Perception of Pain
Caffeine also decreases your perception of pain when you're working out, per a December 2016 review in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. That may allow you to train at a higher intensity.
This decreased perceived pain while working out may have other indirect benefits as well.
"While some studies show an increase of fat oxidation during exercise associated with caffeine intake, it may not be a direct effect, and instead may be due to the fact that with lower perceived pain and exertion, the body will require more energy breakdown to maintain the higher workload," Jones says.
It may also reduce the pain you feel during post-workout recovery, according to an older study published March 2007 in the Journal of Pain.
3. It Might Support Weight Loss
Fueling up on caffeine 30 minutes before aerobic exercise could help you burn more fat, per a small January 2021 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
In the study, fifteen men took a dose of green coffee bean powder that equated to 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (roughly what you would find in a strong cup of coffee) or a placebo. They then took a variety of exercise tests.
The researchers found that having caffeine a half hour before an aerobic workout boosted fat oxidation during exercise, no matter what time of day it was. In fact, caffeine increased fat oxidation by 10.7 percent in the morning and 29 percent in the afternoon compared to the placebo — and it also heightened exercise intensity by 11 percent in the a.m. and 13 percent in the afternoon hours.
In general, research suggests that caffeine may support weight loss. Sipping on 4 cups of coffee daily could reduce body fat by about 4 percent, per a 24-week observational study of 126 adults with overweight in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Of course, 4 cups of coffee may lead to unpleasant side effects in some people (and the effects on weight loss will likely be negated if you overload your coffee with cream or sugar), but the results do show that coffee can be part of a weight-loss plan when used safely.
4. It Gives You Energy
Drinking coffee regularly may also help prep your energy stores for your workouts, according to early research.
"Animal studies have shown that caffeic acid may increase the transport of glucose in the body and the replenishment of glycogen (stored muscle carbohydrate)," Jones says. "While more research is warranted, this means that regular coffee intake may result in better energy stores leading into exercise, allowing for greater intensity and/or longer duration of activity."
Research in humans is preliminary but also promising: Compared to a placebo, caffeine significantly improved time to exhaustion by 12 percent in men using stationary bikes in a small November 2016 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. The researchers believe this could be due to a caffeine-induced reduction in perception of effort and improved mood.
How Much Coffee to Drink — and When to Drink It
When it comes to taking caffeine for performance, you don't want to overdo it so you're jittery and unable to focus, but you don't want to undershoot it either so that you can't reap the benefits. The goal is to land somewhere in the middle.
A March 2019 review paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine acknowledges that limited research has been done on coffee specifically, but notes that the caffeine dose from coffee would need to be within the range of 3 to 6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight to be ergogenic.
The average 8-ounce cup of coffee contains around 100 milligrams of caffeine. Two cups of coffee would provide 200 milligrams, which is 3 milligrams per kilogram for a 150-pound person.
How Long Does It Take for Caffeine to Kick In?
Coffee may be liquid magic, but its powers don't last all day. You want to time your coffee intake pre-workout so that you get the most bang for your buck.
Whether you're doing a long run or a 20-minute HIIT workout, you want to get in your coffee about one hour before working out, according to the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association. That's long enough for the juice to kick in, and the performance-enhancing effects can last up to 4 hours.
Should You Drink Coffee Before a Workout at Night?
If you're drinking 2 cups of coffee in the morning and then 2 more cups in the afternoon pre-workout, you could be nearing your maximum recommended intake for the day. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should limit their caffeine to no more than 400 milligrams per day. Any more than that could cause side effects like insomnia, anxiety, fast heart rate, upset stomach and headaches.
No one likes to count sheep or stare at the ceiling when they should be sleeping, but you could find yourself there if you drink coffee too late in the day. Each person is different, so find out your cut-off point and don't go past it, even if you have an evening workout planned.
3 Tips for Drinking Coffee Before a Workout
Coffee can give you a boost for exercise, but it's important to approach your java habit in a healthy way to avoid potential side effects — and to keep your body fueled with the proper nutrients and hydration.
1. Don’t Rely On It as Your Main Source of Energy
Yes, caffeine gives you a surge of energy, but it's not the same type of energy you get from being well-hydrated or eating nutritious food.
"While caffeine intake between 4 to 6 milligrams per kilogram per day likely does not cause fluid loss, it's important not to rely on caffeine as the most significant energy and hydration source," Jones says. "Adequate intake of carbohydrates and fluids are necessary for short- and long-term athletic success and should be turned to as primary energy and hydration sources."
2. Listen to Your Body When Drinking Coffee
Our bodies are all different, and the growing field of nutrigenomics is proof of that. No two are alike! The same is true when it comes to caffeine's effects. "There may be great variability in the tolerance to and metabolism of caffeine," Jones says.
"Nutrigenomics research has found that some people are slow metabolizers of caffeine and may not have exercise benefits from ingestion like most people do. Typically, these people will react poorly, with feelings of anxiety and/or a racing heart, or other symptoms that decrease performance," Jones continues.
3. Go Easy on the Sugar and Cream
Sure, caffeine may help you get more out of your workout, but if you have a heavy hand when it comes to adding sweeteners and half-and-half, you could be doing more harm than good. Instead, do coffee right and stick to 1 percent milk or a non-dairy alternative, and if you do add some of the sweet stuff, limit your portion.
Additional reporting by Kelsey Kloss.
- Nutrients: "Sources of Caffeine in Diets of US Children and Adults: Trends by Beverage Type and Purchase Location"
- Nutrients: "Open AccessArticle Coffee Ingestion Improves 5 km Cycling Performance in Men and Women by a Similar Magnitude"
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: "Effects of caffeine on neuromuscular fatigue and performance during high-intensity cycling exercise in moderate hypoxia"
- Journal of Pain: "Caffeine attenuates delayed-onset muscle pain and force loss following eccentric exercise"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Caffeine increases maximal fat oxidation during a graded exercise test: is there a diurnal variation?"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The effect of coffee consumption on insulin sensitivity and other biological risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a randomized placebo-controlled trial"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance—an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses"
- Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association: "Caffeine and Athletic Performance"
- Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: "A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025