I’m a very big proponent of regularly consuming a large amount of coffee, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. But timing is everything. As relaxing and productive as a cup of coffee can be, too much caffeine over a short period of time tends to dull the effects of the drug as I begin to build up a relatively large tolerance. To counteract this, I generally restrict myself to two cups a day. Making sure I drink these two cups at the right time also matters. Too early in the day, and I don’t get much done while enjoying my coffee. Too late, and I’m usually up too long for me to get my usual early start to the day. Thankfully, having a double-purpose for my first cup of coffee eliminates a lot of frustration – right after I finish cup #1, I head off to train.
Coffee is a legendary pre-workout, in my opinion. It’s no happy accident that I train right after my first cup – I used to train in the afternoon, which is also how I developed the habit of having cup #2 sometime after lunch. The reason I believe coffee is a good pre-workout is because all the science points towards it: a healthy dose of caffeine boosts physical strength, alertness, and performance both mentally and on whatever field it is that you move or train. One of my biggest hobbies besides coffee is lifting weights, and caffeine is particularly useful for any aspiring weightlifters or powerlifters. But rather than simply know that caffeine is an excellent pre-workout, understanding why can give you a better idea of how to structure your day around your coffee intake.
What Caffeine Does to Your Body and Mind
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug – it changes the way your brain works for just a little bit, or more accurately, it affects you a little stronger than, say, most of what you eat or drink. It’s not alone in that regard – while psychoactive sounds a little scary, caffeine is nowhere near as potentially dangerous as alcohol, and just a little stronger than theanine. Like any ingredient or chemical with an effect on the brain, caffeine has both its pros and cons, with most of its cons coming from long-term use or excessive dosage.
Caffeine in the Brain
For the most part, caffeine is classified as a mild stimulant. This means that it generally boosts mood and mental performance, increases cognitive performance, improves reaction time, alertness, and concentration, and allows for more productivity within a short period of time. When coincided carefully with activities that benefit from these effects, caffeine can be an excellent boon to any person.
There is some evidence that suggests that the effectiveness of caffeine is somehow genetic, in the sense that some people react more strongly to certain doses based on their genes. For example, some people can do well on up to five cups of coffee and never really struggle with tolerance issues, while others begin to experience to negative effects of caffeine intake – such as jitters and anxiety – on just one cup of strong coffee.
Mentally, coffee raises alertness and generally keeps you sharp. But what about physically? Indeed, coffee does have its effects on the body, not least of which is that it boosts your metabolism a little and, being a stimulant, it generally cuts into your appetite. This can be very useful if you tend to fast in the morning, or if you’re generally trying to just lose weight. However, if you’re looking to maintain a high food intake for sport reasons, then it might be a good idea to drink water in the morning, have your first meal, and then have a cup of coffee afterward before you start your training session.
Caffeine and Sports
The effects of coffee on sports performance are quite well-studied – and in conclusion, most studies suggest that caffeine marginally improves endurance in human adults, and marginally improves power in human adults as well. Furthermore, it actually reduces post-workout soreness, especially in untrained individuals or those with little training experience. In conjunction with other anti-DOMS techniques (massage, heat, rest, post-workout glycogen), caffeinated drinks can help people just getting into sports feel a little less fatigued and more likely to train again relatively soon. In other words, you’ll want to drink coffee before you train, and afterwards as well.
The exact effects of coffee on your sport in particular are highly dependent on what it is that you do. Sports that require acute mental faculties and faster reflexes will greatly benefit from the use of stimulants, even if they’re weaker as with caffeine. It would be in the best interest of an athlete to consider taking a league-legal high dose of caffeine prior to a big match, if they need to rely on reflexes and quick thinking. However, caffeine as a stimulant can also lead to unwanted anxiety. Mental stimulation is good, but too much caffeine can be detrimental to mental performance because you’re too “wired”. Take care to keep this in mind, and experiment with the strength of your coffee to see what you respond to best – you might want more than one cup before training, but not much more.
In the end, it’s very individual. As a strength athlete, I don’t really need much of a focus on endurance or arousal. In fact, too much mental arousal would likely impact my training in a negative way, especially during the lead up to a big event. What I’m looking for in coffee is the positive feeling of being mentally active and ready to tackle the day, capable of maintaining a calm focus on the workout (and any work for the rest of the day afterward) without feeling like my brain is about to go through my skull, eyes jittering across the room, hands unsteady. While lifting might seem like a relatively simple sport with little mental involvement, it takes tremendous amounts of mental preparation and concentration to train in higher intensities and approach the body’s maximal limits.
In the same way, someone who goes running is going to require an immense amount of mental willpower to push through the final leg of an endurance event, and it takes a certain level of concentration and mental performance to adequate manage your pace and energy and keep yourself from flying off the handle too early or going too slow.
Alternatively, if you’re just exercising to have a little fun and stay healthy, it’s probably best to start your day off with a light roast. Something more heavily caffeinated may push you to do more than you usually do, which can be a good thing, but also gives way to the potential of injury. A light roast in the morning and something stronger after a workout will give you the best of both worlds.
What’s in A Pre-Workout Anyway?
When people discuss pre-workouts, they’re usually discussing powdered formulas designed to give you a boost of energy during your training, utilizing a variety of different substances to boost performance, but relying mostly on the effects of caffeine. Pre-workouts can be effective depending on what mixture you’re using, and studies specifically show that if you’re interested in strength primarily, then non-caffeine substances like creatine and beta-alanine may, in fact, boost your ability to pick up and move heavy weight. For most gymgoers, however, these substances are of little to no importance, and they’re definitely not going to give you any more of a benefit than a cup of strong coffee might.
Another thing to keep in mind is that more obscure, less legal pre-workouts may, in fact, contain substances that, at a higher dose, are a little riskier than you might expect. Caffeine as a supplement is in general more dangerous than in coffee, because you’d have to guzzle gallons of coffee to begin experiencing the effects of too much caffeine, versus taking a few small albeit highly potent doses. Some supplements contain as much caffeine in a single dose as four average-strength cups of brewed coffee, for example. Still not enough for it to be dangerous but note that regularly taking a lot of caffeine might also dull your system to it a little bit.
In short, if you’re looking for a little pick-me-up before heading to the gym and just want to exercise, coffee can be great. Furthermore, if you’re not one to exercise very often anyway, adding a pre-workout ritual to it might actually help you get in the rhythm to exercise more often. It’s also one of the cheaper available pre-workouts, especially if you consider that a lot of the benefits of taking a pre-workout aside from the caffeine boost is just the placebo of thinking you’re stronger after one scoop.
If you’re like me, and you really like coffee, then exercising can be a good excuse to drink more of it. Just keep in mind how coffee can affect digestion and appetite, and adjust your eating plans accordingly.