Coffee Before A Workout: Is It A Good Idea? Does It Help?

Anyone who gets serious about working out knows it’s important to stay hydrated.

The American College of Sports Medicine, for example, recommends drinking 500 milliliters of water (that’s about 17 ounces) two hours pre-workout, drinking more water at regular intervals while you work out, and still more during your cool down. Hydration is necessary to replace the fluid you lose through perspiration.

Sports drinks containing electrolytes are a good alternative for high-intensity or endurance workouts, but their added sugar and calories aren’t desirable otherwise.

That’s all common sense. But what about drinking coffee before a workout?

If you head to the gym before work, you probably do it by default. A cup of coffee can wake you up and boost your energy level before you hit the treadmill or bike, or start your squats and lunges.

But research shows that deliberately having a cup of joe before a workout is almost always a good idea.

The Health Benefits of Coffee

Most people know by now that coffee is good for them.

It’s Americans’ most-important dietary source of antioxidants, which are crucial for protecting cells against the damage caused by free radicals in the body.

Drinking coffee appears to lower the risk of developing diabetes, liver disease, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and possibly even some types of cancer.

Those are all long-term benefits of enjoying coffee with breakfast or after dinner. The caffeine in coffee also provides short-term benefits like short-term energy and focus. Both are obviously helpful when you’re trying to wake up in the morning or when you “hit the wall” during a long workday.

Additional energy and focus can also be great when you’re in the gym or on the track, needless to say. But the benefits of coffee before a workout go much further than that.

Coffee and Athletic Performance

Numerous studies conducted over the last 20 years have shown that caffeine effectively enhances performance in many types of athletic activities.

In 2010, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) reviewed the research that had been done up to that point and reached several conclusions.

  1. Low-to-moderate levels of caffeine consumption boost sports performance in trained athletes. Higher amounts of caffeine provide no additional benefit.
  2. Caffeine provides added alertness, and focus enhancement, during long and strenuous workouts.
  3. Caffeine enhances performance during exercises and activities that require endurance.
  4. Caffeine is beneficial for high-intensity exercise performance.
  5. Caffeine is an even greater ergogenic aid (meaning it enhances performance) when it’s consumed in the dehydrated form found in sports drinks and energy bars.
  6. There’s no evidence that consuming caffeine causes fluid loss during exercise.
  7. There’s no conclusive evidence that caffeine supplementation helps performance in athletic disciplines that focus on strength or power, although some studies suggest that it might.

That’s a lot of information.

To boil it down, the caffeine in other supplements may help even more – but pre-workout coffee has been shown to improve athletic performance, alertness and concentration. Its effects are best seen in long workouts that involve high-intensity activity and/or endurance.

There’s evidence that drinking coffee before hitting the gym might help in other ways, too.

For example, one small study assigned participants to either consume caffeine or a placebo before weight training. The results provided more evidence that coffee can help with endurance; caffeine ingestion helped people complete more reps than the placebo did.

But it also shed light on another important benefit.

It turned out that caffeine intake before exercise significantly reduced the amount of time needed for muscle recovery, as well as the number of subsequent problems with muscle soreness and more severe muscle pain.

Why? Caffeine apparently promotes glycogen recovery, allowing muscle tissue to be rebuilt quickly. That could be an argument for post-workout coffee as well.

There’s one more potential benefit to drinking coffee before a workout. It’s so important that we’ll discuss it in more detail.

Coffee and Fat-Burning

Some people work out simply because they enjoy working out. Others do it to improve their endurance or to build muscle. But many go to the gym to help them lose body weight.

Similarly, lots of people drink coffee because they enjoy it, or because they understand the health benefits of coffee. Many others, though, believe that drinking coffee will help them lose weight. Some evidence supports that belief.

That leads to an important question. Can exercise and coffee work together to provide even greater weight loss?

It might, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Researchers had test participants perform timed sessions on exercise bikes. Before half of their sessions, they consumed three mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, about the same amount found in a cup of coffee. Before the other sessions, they took a placebo.

Here’s what the researchers found. Caffeine ingestion half an hour before exercise increased fat oxidation (that’s what most of us call fat-burning) at a much greater rate than was seen with the placebo. Exercise intensity (the amount of energy expended during exercise) was also greater for the test subjects who’d consumed the caffeine.

There were more discoveries, too. Caffeine’s benefits were strongest in the afternoon, not in the morning; fat-burning increased by 10% in the morning but by almost 30% in the late afternoon. Even more interesting: participants who exercised without caffeine in the afternoon burned the same amount of fat as those who exercised with caffeine in the morning. 

That leads to two conclusions.

  • If you want to burn the most fat, you should exercise in the afternoon after drinking coffee.
  • Combining coffee and exercise can boost fat-burning, and potentially, increase weight loss.

Does Timing Matter?

There’s some evidence that there are optimal times to drink coffee before a workout.

The effects of coffee start to kick in within 15 minutes of consumption, peak in about an hour and start to wear off 1-2 hours after that. Half of coffee’s caffeine is still in your body after six hours. So you’ll experience some benefits even if you’ve had your coffee several hours before hitting the gym.

However, that doesn’t mean you’ll experience optimal benefits.

We’ve already discussed one study that showed fat-burning was maximized 30 minutes after caffeine consumption. And the ISSN research review we mentioned earlier suggested caffeine’s benefits are greatest when it’s consumed 60 minutes before athletic performance.

A different study looked more specifically at the performance-enhancing benefits of caffeine for three forms of exercise.

It found that having coffee one hour before a workout is the right timing for both vertical jumps and so-called isometric exercises (like planks and squats) which don’t involve the joints. The right timing is 30 minutes, though, for isokinetic exercises like walking on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike, both of which do require the use of the joints.

What About the Type and Amount of Coffee?

The ISSN research suggests that the optimal amount of caffeine to consume before working out is 3-6 milligrams per kilogram of body mass, which is 1-2 cups of black coffee for most people. Separate research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology concurs, suggesting that two cups is the amount that helps most.

The type of coffee you drink before a workout only matters when it comes to caffeine content. One cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, while a cup of instant coffee and a shot of espresso each contain about 60mg.

If you’re not a coffee drinker but still want caffeine before working out, most sodas contain around 30mg, and there’s a little less in tea. One can of Rockstar or Monster Energy should be enough for a pre-workout drink, since they each contain around 160mg of caffeine. Powdered pre-workout supplements have anywhere from 150-300 mg per serving.

Those ballpark numbers should help you decide the right amount to consume.

Can Coffee Before a Workout Hurt You?

You probably already know whether you should avoid coffee before working out.

If you’ll only be consuming a cup or two, there’s no need to worry about caffeine overdose; it’s usually only an issue when you get higher than 400 milligrams per day.

The other potential side effects are simply the ones any coffee drinker might experience.

Anxiety or sleep difficulties usually occur only after high levels of consumption. Stomach aches might be a bigger issue, particularly on an empty stomach; drinking smaller amounts of very strong coffee or espresso before a workout could be a good solution.

Those who experience rapid heart rate or blood pressure after drinking coffee should naturally avoid it under any circumstances.

If you’re in that last group with caffeine sensitivity, you can get some of the same workout benefits by having a carb-heavy snack before exercising since carbohydrates provide additional energy and focus. Stay away from ones loaded with sugar, though, because they’ll lead to a sugar crash within an hour.

Written by Claire Grieve

8 Min read

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