Caffeine is one of the most socially acceptable drugs and its benefits are well-known. It is, in fact, a drug, and as a drug, caffeine works as an ergogenic aid. In plain language, caffeine is a natural performance enhancer.
We have all heard folk-wisdom and anecdotes about the benefits of caffeine and exercise. Some of us have also heard cautionary tales. There is always some truth behind the stories.
But the facts indicate that caffeine and exercise do work well together. Some sports supplements come with a healthy dose of caffeine simply to boost energy levels. Many runners begin a race day with a little coffee. Caffeine and exercise have coexisted nicely for quite some time.
How does caffeine enhance exercise, and how may caffeine be detrimental? While most of us know how much caffeine is too much, we may need to know some of the science behind the effects and interactions of caffeine and exercise.
How does caffeine work?
While those of us who cannot start a day before we have had our morning cup of coffee are pretty clear on the immediate benefits of caffeine, the science of caffeine is largely unknown to many people. How caffeine works do not seem to matter as much as the fact that it works.
Caffeine works by performing a trick in the brain. Part of the chemistry of sleep involves the synthesis of a chemical called adenosine. This binds to adenosine receptors in the brain and this makes us drowsy. Adenosine also causes blood vessels to dilate to allow for increased blood flow. ‘
Caffeine chemically resembles adenosine and easily binds with adenosine receptors. This does two things. It blocks the receptors from binding with adenosine so that they no longer work to make you drowsy and sleepy. Second, caffeine does the opposite of adenosine. It speeds things up.
Caffeine also constricts blood vessels. This is why some over the counter pain relievers contain caffeine because this type of vasoconstriction can reduce the inflammation that causes common headaches.
Finally, caffeine causes neurons in the brain to start firing. Our glandular system recognizes this as an emergency and releases hormones from the adrenal system. This leads to dilated pupils, airways open up, the heartbeat increases, the liver releases extra sugar into the bloodstream for increased energy, and our muscles tighten and prepare for action.
All of these effects obviously lend themselves to exercise and physical performance.
Caffeine and Working Out
This brings us back to caffeine and working out. Caffeine has been a basic supplement for athletes for a long time. It is so entrenched in working out and athletics that the NCAA tried to ban caffeine in high doses.
Caffeine is scientifically proven to increase endurance. In studies that compared athletes who took caffeine in controlled doses compared to others who were given a placebo, the athletes who took caffeine supplements were able to cover as much as 2 miles more than the control group. For competitive runners and cyclists, this is a significant edge.
Caffeine also increased speed for runners and cyclists. Athletes who included caffeine as part of their workout supplements and completed in 1500 meter races came in 4.2 seconds faster than those who did not have caffeine.
Caffeine is known to enhance workouts in some significant ways.
- Caffeine is a natural fat burner. There is a reason caffeine is included in the best fat burner supplements. Caffeine makes it possible for you to exercise harder and longer. This naturally burns fat.
- Caffeine also causes your body to burn calories even in a resting state by increasing your metabolic rate. The increase in metabolic activity that naturally comes with the effects of caffeine causes your body to burn up fat cells to sustain the heightened state. This produces an increase in thermogenesis, which is the increase in the way your body burns fat at a normal level of activity.
- Caffeine is also known to work as a natural appetite suppressant. This comes when your adrenal system switches into the fight-or-flight state as a result of the increase in hormones from the adrenal glands.
- Increased focus. One of the primary effects of caffeine is to make you hyper-alert. For people who work out, this can provide the intense focus you need to stay on track with your exercise regimen. Just as people who do intellectual work benefit from the intense focus they get from caffeine athletes benefit in the same way.
- It can reduce muscle pain. A study by a leading medical journal on pain management found that caffeine can significantly reduce muscle pain. It is believed that the glycogen boost we get from caffeine contributes to this benefit.
How does it improve your workout?
The effects of caffeine toward increased performance and improved fitness are evident. The ways in which caffeine improves your workout stem from the natural effects caffeine has on the body. There are a few important ways caffeine can improve your workout.
Caffeine is one of the best pre-workout supplements available. No need to buy expensive pre-workout supplements when some good strong coffee will do the same thing. The boost of energy and adrenaline are precisely the things you get out of most pre-workout supplements. And the caffeine in a cup of good coffee tastes a whole lot better than most supplements.
Increased aerobic performance
As we saw above, caffeine increases your endurance. 100-200 mg of caffeine prior to a run can significantly enhance your ability to keep going. This type of enhanced endurance and aerobic performance holds equally true for athletes who require short bursts of energy. Lifters and even people who play team sports that require quick and intense bursts of energy will see benefits from the enhanced aerobic performance provided by caffeine.
Enhanced weight training
Some studies have shown that caffeine improves strength training. The increase in energy and endurance is partially responsible for this. But it turns out the increase in glycogen helps people sustain intense weight training. Evidence also shows that caffeine helps with anaerobic muscle activity. This is the type of exertion that causes the burn we associate with intense training and workouts.
The benefits of caffeine for a workout hold for anyone engaged in exercise. However, some studies have demonstrated that caffeine is particularly beneficial for athletes who train and elite levels. Some of the benefits of caffeine, especially as they impact serious endurance training, increase for athletes who are involved in high-intensity training. It seems the effects of caffeine become more pronounced for athletes who are already in top shape and whose workouts are especially grueling.
Tips to get the most out of caffeine as a workout tool
To maximize the benefits of caffeine for your workout you need to pay attention to when you take in the caffeine and how much you consume.
- Take caffeine, either as a supplement or in coffee, about 45 minutes before you work out. This allows your body time to metabolize the caffeine to maximize its effects.
- The recommended amount, or dose, of caffeine, is about 200-400 mg of caffeine for a 150-pound person. This is roughly what you will get in a 20-ounce cup of coffee from a coffee shop.
- During workout. The jury remains out on the benefits of caffeine during a workout, but anecdotal evidence suggests a supplement or sports drink that gives you about 5- 6 mg of caffeine per pound of body weight can help sustain your workout at the level of intensity you require.
- Post-workout. Again, similar levels of caffeine as you take during the workout can help replenish glycogen levels after an intense workout. The natural stimulation of the liver and kidneys helps with the release of extra glycogen. This can help muscles recover faster.
The amount of caffeine you take and the times you take it can be a matter of trial and error. While the recommendations above are based on scientific averages, you may find that too much caffeine inhibits your workout. For some, the levels of caffeine recommended above may not be enough.
How much caffeine is the right amount?
The right amount can be a subjective issue. As we said above, recommended doses can be perfect for some, and simply off the mark for others. Caffeine supplements for working out requires some experimentation.
The recommended dose of caffeine is based on body weight. At 1.4-2.7 mg per pound of body weight, you have some leeway in the scientific recommendations. Some studies recommend as much as 600-900 mg of caffeine, although this is clearly on the high end and primarily aimed at high-performance athletes.
Start at the low end. Begin with 150-200 mg of caffeine total. This is about the caffeine you get from a 16-ounce cup of coffee. You can always work up from this once you get a sense of how caffeine impacts your workout.
Since caffeine levels in beverages like coffee can vary significantly, it is best to experiment with the amount of coffee you drink before, during, and after a workout. Even if you are taking measured does in a pre-workout supplement, the real effects of these doses will vary according to your own physiological makeup.
- It takes approximately 30 minutes for caffeine to reach its peak effects. We eliminate about half the caffeine we ingest in 3-5 hours, but it can linger in our systems for as much as 14 hours.
- 96 % of the caffeine consumed in the U.S. comes from beverages. Coffee leads the list.
- Coffee is still the best caffeine delivery system. Even a 12-ounce cup delivers as much as 260 mg of caffeine.
- Energy drinks, despite their advertising campaigns, contain less caffeine than coffee.
- Coffee is the most socially acceptable drug. It has even been linked to fighting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Caffeine does have negative effects. It causes sleeplessness and anxiety. In extreme doses, caffeine can cause nausea, vomiting, and convulsions.
- Caffeine works by blocking the neurotransmitter adenosine. It tricks your brain into thinking you are full of energy instead of being tired.
- Caffeine causes the release of dopamine. Caffeine really does make you happy.
- It is possible to experience withdrawal from caffeine. If you regularly drink coffee or take caffeine supplements, your body will go through a period of adjustment when you stop using caffeine.
Wrapping things up
For many people, a good strong cup of coffee has always been a feature of the pre-workout ritual. Just getting the system moving with the lift we all get from coffee is enough to convince most of us that caffeine is a great workout supplement.
Athletes have sworn by caffeine as a boost to working out for years. Well before specialized workout supplements, trainers advocated the benefits of caffeine. Now we have some serious science to back up these beliefs.
Caffeine provides extra energy for a good solid workout. It literally stimulates blood flow and enhances metabolism. These effects enhance your ability to engage in the kinds of strenuous activities that characterize almost any workout.
Caffeine boosts endurance and even provides the energy for short bursts of energy required for specific kinds of sports. The increased glycogen provides extra support for intense weight training.
While caffeine can appear to be something of a miracle supplement for workouts, we do need to be careful. Even the scientifically recommended doses can be suspect. If you intend to use caffeine to enhance your workout, just use some common sense. Start with modest doses and work your way up.
Many pre-workout supplements contain caffeine. Reputable products will enhance your workout. Here again, taking the time for experimenting with dosage is a good idea. While caffeine is readily available and socially acceptable, we need to remember that it is a drug. We need to take precautions in using caffeine as a workout supplement.