The Benefits of Drinking Coffee Before and After Working Out, According to Experts
Performance fuel or exercise saboteur? Here's what sport specialists and research say about timing your coffee and workouts.
You're gearing up to work out and although you've hydrated, you're also considering drinking a coffee before your workout for an extra boost of energy. Or maybe you're waiting until after your workout to enjoy that cup of java to suppress any post-workout fatigue. Or—plot twist—you're thinking of downing a cup before and another one after your workout.
The question is, are any of these ideas a good idea? According to experts, there are benefits to all of those approaches, but also a few pitfalls to bear in mind, too. Before you visit your favourite barista, here's what you should know.
Benefit: caffeine is a well-studied sport supplement
When using caffeine from coffee correctly, it can decrease perceived effort during exercise, which often allows you to work out harder, according to Kacie Vavrek, RD, specialist in sport nutrition at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
"Studies have shown the benefits of caffeine consumption for endurance and high-intensity exercise that lasts more than 20 minutes", she says. That's true not just for caffeine supplements but also for good old-fashion roasts.
For example, a 2013 study in PLoS One compared the metabolic and performance effects of drinks with caffeine compared to regular caffeinated coffee (both of which contained an equivalent amount of caffeine) during endurance exercise. The findings revealed that there was no difference between the two—both provided significant performance gains when consumed an hour before exercise.
Benefit: Coffee May be a Post-Workout Tool
As long as you prioritise hydration like water and electrolyte beverages, and use coffee as an add-on, your beans can be part of an effective post-workout recovery strategy, says Christina Meyer-Jax, RDN, nutrition chair and assistant professor at the College of Health and Wellness at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minnesota.
For example, a 2021 study in journal Nutrients found that coffee with adequate amounts of carbohydrates increased muscle glycogen resynthesis during the four-hour recovery window following intense cycling exercise.
"What this means is that it helped muscles recover faster, and prepared them more efficiently for the next race or training day", says Meyer-Jax.
Benefit: research suggests coffee, not just caffeine, can be a health booster
Apart from the athletic performance considerations around coffee, drinking the beverage in general can offer health gains since coffee has unique properties, according to Andrea Dunn, RD, advanced practice registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic.
"Coffee is actually an excellent source of antioxidants", she says. "It also contains about a thousand different botanical compounds, as well as B vitamins, riboflavin and potassium, and has been linked to lower risk of some illnesses, including type 2 diabetes and liver disease".
According to research presented at the 2021 European Society of Cardiology conference, drinking up to three cups of coffee per day is associated with a lower risk of stroke and fatal heart disease, which means your coffee habit could even help you live longer.
Pitfalls: keep side effects in mind, and know your competition limit
If you're integrating coffee into your workout mix—for example, you've started playing around with sipping coffee before a run to see if it helps boost endurance—pay attention to possible downsides, Vavrek suggests. That might include symptoms like jitters, nausea, rapid heart rate, anxiety and sleep disruption.
At the very least, it could lead to more bathroom breaks, adds Meyer-Jax. That's because coffee tends to be diuretic, and although it's not enough to sabotage your hydration overall, it may be annoying to have to stop your workout for frequent bathroom breaks.
Another important note, Vavrek adds, is that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has banned high doses of caffeine—a urinary concentration of 15 micrograms per millilitre will result in a positive drug test. Vavrek says this would be equivalent to drinking six to eight cups of coffee within three hours of a competition. That might sound like a lot, but it's easy to get there if you have a couple of cups of coffee along with other caffeine sources like supplements or caffeinated energy drinks.
How much coffee should you have, and when?
Research suggests the key is to stick to moderate consumption, to avoid overloading on caffeine. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, the recommendation is to have under 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per day across all your beverages. A 237-ml cup of coffee usually has about 80–100 mg, so you'll be within those guidelines as long as you keep it under four cups.
Remember to factor in all your forms of caffeine, too, suggests Vavrek. She says caffeine is most beneficial when consumed in doses of three to six milligrams per kilogram of body weight—which tends to be about what you get in one to two cups of coffee, she adds—and to have it 60 minutes before your workout.
"The timing of caffeine intake will depend on the source of caffeine, whether that's coffee, caffeine chewing gum or energy drinks", she notes. "The response to caffeine is very individual, and can depend on many things, including genetics and whether you're a regular coffee drinker".
It comes down to personal taste—just like picking your go-to roast—to determine whether drinking coffee before or after exercise is beneficial. Experts suggest that it's worth trying it out—long before a race day—to see if coffee around a workout is a fit for you.
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