Caffeine and Exercise: The Right (and Wrong) Way to Use It

Caffeine and Exercise: The Right (and Wrong) Way to Use It

Photo: Linda Xu

Kamal Patel is the director of Examine.com, an independent and unbiased encyclopedia on supplementation and nutrition. He is a nutrition researcher with an MPH and MBA from Johns Hopkins University, and is on hiatus from a PhD in nutrition, in which he researched the link between diet and chronic pain. He has published peer-reviewed articles on vitamin D and calcium as well as a variety of clinical research topics.

Caffeine has long been hailed as a performance enhancer. In fact, from 1984 to 2004, the International Olympic Committee tested athletes for high levels of the stimulant they deemed could provide an unfair edge. (Since then, of course, stronger drugs have entered the stage — or snuck backstage.) But for your average Joe, caffeine still wins out as one of the safest performance boosters to enhance your workout.

So should everyone throw back a cup coffee before hitting the gym? And does it still work for regular java drinkers? We grind through the latest research, so you can sip smarter.

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How Caffeine Works in the Body

When you drink a cup of coffee or whip up a mug full of matcha, the caffeine goes straight to your head. More specifically, it has the ability to block different receptors in the brain. By blocking the A1 receptor, the stimulant can stave off sleepiness and increase endurance. By blocking the A2A receptor, it can raise the brain’s levels of dopamine and epinephrine — aka adrenaline — therefore increasing focus and improving your power.

If you think back to that first time you downed some coffee, you might recall a euphoric-like feeling of alertness. Well, that’s from the neurotransmitters dopamine and epinephrine. When you keep reaching for some java, though, the A2A receptor desensitizes. Therefore, your production of dopamine and epinephrine normalizes, meaning you need caffeine just to reach the neurotransmitter levels you had before you started sipping. To help you figure out whether you need to take a pause from your coffee pot, let’s break down the benefits that caffeine can bring to your workout — and whether they go away when you start drinking coffee regularly.

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4 Ways Caffeine Can Boost Workout Performance

1. Better Fat Burn

You’re likely to find this stimulant on the label of even the most cutting-edge fat-burner for a few reasons. First, because of its effects on brain receptors, caffeine can help you exercise harder, longer, and thus burn more calories. Second, it can make you burn more calories at rest, thanks to the increase in noradrenaline that ups your metabolic rate. Keep in mind, however, this short-term thermogenic effect will fade if you consume coffee every day. Third, the pick-me-up helps mobilize lipids in fat cells so they can be used for energy, helping your body work more efficiently. Fourth, caffeine can suppress appetite by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which flips the switch on your flight-or-fight response and temporarily keeps you from wanting to eat. If burning fat is your main goal, opt for 100 to 200 mg of the stimulant twice per day.

2. Faster Recovery

Ingesting caffeine alongside carbohydrates can improve the rate of glycogen replenishment, which is particularly important if you exercise very frequently, or more than once in a day. This repairs your muscles so you can get back out there.

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3. Increased Aerobic Performance

If you run, play sports or do any other endurance-heavy activity, you may want to take 100 to 200 mg of caffeine before your workout. This will block that A1 receptor and help you exercise for a longer period of time. However, if you’re in a sport that relies mostly on endurance but also requires short bursts of power (such as most team sports or HIIT), you’ll benefit most from a cup of java if you take it infrequently — say, just before games instead of every a.m.

4. Enhanced Anaerobic Performance

A caffeine dose of 200 to 600 mg may help you sprint faster or lift more weight, according to research. However, this ergogenic effect is small and fades with frequent intake. In fact, once your tolerance rises, you’ll need some java just to reach the same levels of focus and power you once had without caffeine — a phenomenon called withdrawal reversal.

A few key facts will help you avoid building up a caffeine dependence, which means when you stop sipping, you could experience symptoms of withdrawal, like fatigue, headaches and sleeplessness. Here’s how to sidestep those symptoms.

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How to Avoid a Caffeine Dependence

“Caffeine can help you exercise harder, longer, and thus burn more calories.”

Some people can build up tolerance in a few days and others in weeks. Similarly, some people can “reset” their body in a week, whereas others may need a couple of months.

If you find you get headaches on the weekends when you skip your java, or have trouble sleeping, try cutting back a bit more during the week. A solid way to test your tolerance: Take at least two weeks off caffeine, then get back into it by starting with a small dose. (We’re talking 50 to 200 mg.) If you find the stimulation from this dosage is what you’re looking for, go back to your regularly scheduled latte. If not, take another week off, then try a small dose again.

Another way to keep tolerance at bay is to consider reaching for an energy boost only when you need it most. Aim for 200 to 600 mg about a half hour before each of your two most strenuous workouts of the week. What you should not do: Try to fight your tolerance with more and more coffee.

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When to Cut Back on Caffeine

Any stimulant — even the caffeine in coffee — can pose some dangers. Take note of how many cups of coffee, tea, sports drinks and soda you’re consuming every day. Also consider the supplements you’re taking, especially any pre-workout mixes, which typically contain the pick-me-up. And check the ingredient list. Some supplements list guarana seeds, which are richer in caffeine than coffee seeds. For most people, you’ll want to avoid exceeding 600 mg of caffeine in a single day.

Developing a dependence isn’t the only possible drawback of caffeine, either, which makes estimating your actual intake all the more important. Among other potential problems, the stimulant is known to raise blood pressure and heart rate, as well as interfere with glucose metabolism. (Those three effects fade away as you become more tolerant, as does the diuretic effect.)

Finally, pay attention to how caffeine affects your sleep. Even if it doesn’t prevent you from falling asleep, it can impair the quality of your sleep. So stop sipping in the afternoon and evening.

All that said, caffeine still offers one of the best pros-to-cons ratios of any stimulant. As with anything, moderation is key. So watch your intake — but feel free to keep sipping, especially before your sweat session.