Pre-Workout Coffee: Should You Drink Coffee Before Working Out?

Source: iStock

Considering whether or not he should drink coffee before his workout | Source: iStock

Everyone starts his or her day a little differently, maybe with a quick shower or catching up on some emails. No matter how the morning begins, most of us don’t let too much time pass before reaching for a cup of coffee. It’s what gives us our initial pep, or at least minimizes sluggishness. Because recent research has linked as many as five cups per day to a longer life, we’re feeling better than ever about our morning mug of joe. But things are a little less clear cut if you work out in the morning. Though the brewed beverage may help you, some might be better off waiting until after hitting the gym.

Let’s start with the case for drinking coffee before your sweat session. Scientists have been studying the link between performance and caffeine consumption for decades and the results pretty conclusively show a positive association. One large review published in 2008 reported athletes saw improved performance after consuming caffeine in activities ranging from endurance sports to more vigorous efforts.

Most of the research has involved caffeine, but not coffee specifically. One 2013 study set out to determine if getting the energy-boosting substance from a cup of joe compared to other methods made a difference. In the study, cyclists consumed a caffeine beverage, coffee, decaf, or a placebo prior to a time trial. Both those who consumed the caffeine and regular coffee enjoyed a boost in overall performance and results for both were nearly the same. So, yes, coffee in particular can help your exercise efforts.

Man lifting weights | Source: iStock

Man lifting weights | Source: iStock

While most research has concerned itself with aerobic activity, some has taken a closer look at how caffeine can affect strength training. One example from 2012 involved 13 men who ingested either a placebo or caffeinated energy beverage prior to completing a variety of strength-training exercises to failure. Participants were able to complete more repetitions for all exercises after consuming caffeine and they also enjoyed a greater degree of mental preparedness.

Psychological benefits can extend even beyond feeling more ready to exercise. One study from the Journal of Applied Physiology found subjects who ingested caffeine prior to cycling found their efforts both easier and more enjoyable. And that’s not all. Subjects tended to consumer fewer calories and less fat following a caffeinated workout than during control trials. If it’s weight loss you’re after, coffee before exercise could be exactly what your program needs.

Now for some less good news, starting with your stomach. Most people think of pizza and chicken wings as the biggest offenders when it comes to heartburn, but coffee can cause the same discomfort. NPR explained caffeine can cause the sphincter muscle, which separates the stomach and the esophagus, to relax. When this happens, stomach acid can work its way into the esophagus. Though not everyone has this problem with coffee, those who are predisposed to acid reflux need to be particularly careful because it can sour your workout pretty fast.

Runners in particular can be sensitive to coffee due to its ability to speed up your digestive system. According to Runner’s World, as many as 60% of all runners experience gastrointestinal distress thanks to less blood flow directed to your gut, general jostling, and gravity. Adding coffee to the equation makes things even worse. And keep an eye on your sports drink if you’re tanking up during a run because some electrolyte beverages contain caffeine.

men working out with stationary bike, cycling, exercise

Source: iStock

If you find yourself suffering from either ailment, try saving your morning java for after your workout. You may not get the same performance-enhancing benefits, but some research suggests coffee could aid recovery. One study found consuming a combination of caffeine and carbohydrates can replenish glycogen levels in muscles better than carbs alone. This means tomorrow’s workout can go significantly better, even after an exhaustive effort.

Also consider the timing of your workout. If you usually hit the gym after finishing up at the office, drinking coffee probably isn’t the best idea because it can negatively impact your sleep cycle. If you need something to wake you up in the afternoon, try a healthy snack instead.

If you’re already a caffeine addict, you may not even enjoy that much of a boost in athletic performance. Some studies have examined the difference between regular users and those who don’t typically ingest caffeine. One example from the Journal of Applied Physiology found those who weren’t accustomed to consuming caffeine experienced a significantly greater boost in performance than habitual users.

The real takeaway is to know your body and have realistic expectations. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, and you haven’t had problems in the past, there’s no need to change now. Just don’t expect to become an Olympic athlete.

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