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? It's true.
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.
But despite coffee being the primary source of caffeine in our diets, 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. But an October 2019 study published in Nutrients found that drinking coffee before exercise can help boost performance in both men and women.
Is coffee your pre-workout of choice? Here's what you should know.
How Does Caffeine Boost Workout Performance?
One of caffeine's undisputed effects is its action as a stimulant on our central nervous system. This is what stimulates that "awake" feeling in the morning and helps us 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," Kelly Jones, RD, LDN, a Philadelphia-based sports dietitian, tells LIVESTRONG.com. It may also help increase body coordination and your ability to sustain your focus while working out — if you've ever run on a treadmill, you know how imperative this can be.
Regular coffee intake may also help prep your energy stores for your workouts. "Animal studies have shown that caffeic acid may increase the transport of glucose in the body and the replenishment of glycogen (stored muscle carbohydrate)," says Jones. "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."
Caffeine also decreases our perception of pain or fatigue when we're working out, which allows us to train at a higher intensity, and it may reduce the pain felt during recovery, according to an older study published March 2007 in the Journal of Pain. 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," says Jones.
When it comes to coffee, the right pre-workout "dose" is 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight.
7 Tips on How to Drink Coffee Before a Workout
1. Drink the right amount: 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 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine acknowledges that limited research has been done on coffee specifically but was able to make the recommendation that the caffeine dose from coffee would need to be within the range of three to six milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight. For example, the 'average' 8-ounce cup of coffee contains around 100 milligrams of caffeine, so two cups of coffee would provide 200 milligrams, which is three milligrams per kilogram for a 150-pound person.
2. Time your pre-workout coffee break: 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 try and 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 four hours.
3. Get plenty of carbs and fluids, too: 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 like complex carbohydrates. "While caffeine intake between four to six 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," says Jones. "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."
4. Monitor your total intake: If you're drinking two cups of coffee in the morning and then drinking two more cups in the afternoon pre-workout, you could be nearing your maximum recommended intake for the day. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should limit their caffeine consumption 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.
5. Know your daily cut-off point: 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 a p.m. Crossfit workout.
6. Stay in tune with your body: 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 tolerance to and metabolism of caffeine," says Jones. "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."
7. 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, stick to 1 percent milk or a non-dairy alternative, and if you do add some of the sweet stuff, limit your portion.
- Nutrients: "Sources of Caffeine in Diets of US Children and Adults: Trends by Beverage Type and Purchase Location"
- Nutrients: "Coffee Ingestion Improves 5 km Cycling Performance in Men and Women by a Similar Magnitude"
- Human Kinetics: "Effects of Coffee Components on Muscle Glycogen Recovery: A Systematic Review."
- Journal of Pain: "Caffeine Attenuates Delayed-Onset Muscle Pain and Force Loss Following Eccentric Exercise."
- 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 the Athletic Performance"
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Caffeine"