You’ve seen that person before: Strolling into the gym with a Starbucks cup in hand, then proceeding to bust out a PR on their deadlift. Or the one sipping their coffee mug before acing a sprint workout on the treadmill. Turns out they’ve been onto something. Research shows that downing a cup of joe before your sweat sesh can boost your performance.
But First, Coffee…
“Caffeine is a stimulant that acts on the central nervous system, the heart, and possibly the ‘center’ that controls blood pressure,” all of which play a vital role in helping your mind and body push harder in a workout, says Heidi Skolnik, M.S., a sports nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Conditioning, Inc. “It can also increase the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, which effects pain receptors and mood” while you’re working out.
In other words, you’ll actually enjoy getting sweaty and it will feel easier when you’re powering through those last few reps. Plus, researchers found that when people caffeinated before a workout, they ate 72 fewer calories later in the day and had an easier time keeping cravings in check. Not a bad deal. Here’s how you, too, can make the most of your next brew.
If You’re a Morning Exerciser…
Enjoy an a.m. cappuccino before the gym? Skolnik says timing can play an important role in your overall performance. “Caffeine is quickly absorbed from the stomach within 15 to 45 minutes of consumption, but it hits its peak stimulatory effects between 30 and 75 minutes,” she says. Drinking a cup about one hour before you work out is optimal, Skolnik says.
You’ll want more fluids than just an eight-ounce mug of joe to get adequately prepped, though. Chasing your brew with some water is key if you’re not getting to your workout right away. “Coffee counts as a fluid,” says Skolnik, but you’ll still want some additional liquid in your tank. If you have an hour or two before your workout, pair your java with seven to 12 ounces of water.
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Just remember: Too much caffeine can have a laxative effect, Skolnik says. (Obviously, not an ideal situation to find yourself in.) OD’ing on coffee can also lead to dehydration, so keep an eye on how many cups you’re downing. (To check your hydration status, look at the color of your urine — the deeper the color, the more dehydrated you are.)
And if you usually take your coffee black, you might want to consider adding milk to your mug. Whether you choose real dairy or soy, you’ll get an extra hit of protein and carbs. Those nutrients can help boost blood sugar after a night of sleep, and can also rev your mental engine to help get your head around tough tasks (think: box jumps), Skolnik adds.
If You Work Out at Night…
Bad news for night owls: If you lace up more often in the afternoon or evening, you might have to miss out on the workout-boosting benefits of coffee. Caffeine stays in your system for four to six hours after drinking, says Skolnik. But it affects everyone differently. Having some before your 7 p.m. workout may be just fine, whereas your running BFF could do the exact same thing and find herself unable to sleep at 1a.m. Researchers think that’s because a person’s genetic makeup, body weight and age all play a role in how our enzymes break down caffeine.
Whatever you do, don’t sacrifice sleep for a caffeine fix. Shut-eye is “imperative for recovery, appetite regulation and more,” says Skolnik. If you’re unable to fall asleep at your desired bedtime, then she suggests skipping the stimulant or switching to a.m. workouts.
That said, you can also try changing your roast for a shorter-lasting buzz. Dark roast coffee can have less caffeine than a light one. (Smaller light roasted beans mean you get more beans, i.e. more caffeine, per scoop.) Cold brew coffee tends to have less caffeine, too. Tea is another option that can provide less of a jolt — black tea has 14 to 70 mg of caffeine in an eight-ounce cup compared to 95 to 200 mg in the same size cup of coffee.
Skolnik says most people only need 250 to 300 mg of caffeine per day to feel its performance-enhancing effect (though it varies based on your body weight and your fitness goals). So opting for a smaller dose could be the best way to get the biggest bang for your, er, mug without foregoing coffee completely.