From weight training to running outdoors, you just can’t beat the endorphin hit that follows a great training session.
Without giving it much consideration, my morning routine has always been: wake up, cup of black coffee, then off to the gym or out for a run – the buzz it gives me takes me from a groggy, bleary eyed mess to energised and ready for action.
As my fitness journey has progressed, I’ve often looked into pre-workout alternatives but continued to wonder: is coffee actually a valid choice before a workout?
Can you use coffee instead of pre-workout? Is coffee a healthy choice?
Well, I’ve done my research. In this article, you’ll find out why and how coffee could help you secure those sought-after gains.
What is pre-workout?
The first thing we need to address here is:
What actually is pre-workout? What is it made of?
Pre-workout is a dietary supplement you can take to help aid your performance in the gym, out on a run or before any exercise you enjoy.
The idea is that it gives you a powerful energy boost to kick start your activity, and helps you to perform at your best, every time.
Pre-workout, like most supplements, generally comes in powdered form or in capsules. It’s usually best to take them about an hour before your workout to receive all the benefits. But what’s the magic ingredient that supposedly gives you all this energy and performance power?
The truth is, there isn’t one.
That being said, there is a core list of components that are often found in pre-workouts, although the amount of each varies. These compounds are: caffeine, creatine, amino acids, and B vitamins.
Oh – and, if the product is powdered, you’ll likely find it contains artificial sweeteners so that it doesn’t taste awful.
Why coffee works as a pre-workout supplement
The most useful ingredient in coffee for using it as a pre-workout is – you guessed it – caffeine. Let’s dive in a little deeper.
How much caffeine is in coffee?
A typical cup of filter coffee contains, on average, 120mg of caffeine. Instant coffee pulls this figure back to around 75mg and an espresso shot is only around 63mg (but that’s in a much smaller volume of water!).
What does caffeine do to the body?
Caffeine works at a cellular level, interrupting an enzyme called phosphodiesterase, which normally breaks down cAMP (Cyclic Adenosine Monophosphate).
This means you end up with more cAMP in your cells, which leads to increased activity in heart muscle cells, more activity in brain cognitive processing, increased muscle glycogen breakdown (delivering more energy to your muscles) and it even promotes enzymes that break up fat tissue.
How does this relate to my workout?
As you know, caffeine causes your heart to beat faster. This allows oxygen to travel around the body quicker for energy metabolism wherever it’s needed. You also think clearer, sharper and react faster.
You feel like a superhuman.
Your muscles are able to use stored energy from food (glycogen to work harder. Your body breaks down more fat tissue for energy during the workout, which is great for athletic performance and weight loss.
For all intents and purposes, you are kinda superhuman, temporarily.
Are there any other health benefits in coffee?
Short answer: Yes, loads.
Cafestol and Kahweol are two diterpenes found in coffee – and the former has been shown to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, by increasing cells’ sensitivity to insulin and improving cell uptake of glucose. This lowers blood glucose and, therefore, the chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
Interestingly, an epidemiological study has also proposed Cafestol and Kahweol are protective against cancer.
The studies they looked at showed that these diterpenes help produce enzymes that support the body in producing protective antioxidants. They not only protect the cells but also play a role in repairing damaged DNA and killing off defective cells that can’t be repaired.
This is hugely significant as DNA damage is the first step towards cancer developing in the body.
Melanoidins are large, deep brown coloured molecules found in coffee and have been linked to tons of positive health benefits.
Similar to diterpenes, they help contribute to antioxidant cell protection. They act in your gut to help maintain the balance of good bacteria and help prevent harmful bacteria growing.
In laboratory studies, melanoidins have been shown to suppress cancer cell growth. If all this isn’t enough already, they also help modulate your body’s detoxification system to remove harmful substances.
Convinced yet? Here’s another one for you.
Trigonelline is found in lots of different plants, veg and grains (like fenugreek, peas, oats) but most importantly it’s found in coffee – of course.
It’s been shown to protect against diseases like type 2 diabetes and obesity-related ailments, by lowering blood glucose and blood triglycerides. As with diterpenes and melanoidins, it also displays plenty of antioxidant properties.
How do antioxidants help my workout?
These components might not directly affect your workout capacity.
We’re playing the long game with these benefits.
In order for your muscles to grow, when you work out, they have to suffer lots of impact and microdamage so they can heal stronger than before. Your body works hard to repair your muscles post-workout and needs plenty of supplies in order to do so.
This is where antioxidants help.
They prevent the negative effects of cell damage and remove toxic by-products from your system. Alongside a healthy, balanced diet, a cup of coffee can give you that much needed antioxidant boost to help you recover faster and get back in the gym again.
Can you drink too much coffee?
Caffeine causes a temporary increase in blood pressure, which was once thought to be negatively associated with cardiovascular disease. However, this effect seems to have little impact on cardiovascular health.
Caffeine is a mild stimulant, so if you suffer from insomnia then coffee certainly won’t help.
Caffeine normally takes five hours to clear from your system but, for some people, it can take up to nine hours – so maybe go easy on the lattes if you find it difficult to nod off or, at least, stop after 2pm.
It’s also an important watch out that most pre-workout mixtures contain higher levels of caffeine than your average cup of joe too, so bear this in mind if you’re trying alternatives.
Another issue with caffeine is anxiety. The jittery, stimulant effects of caffeine can worsen symptoms associated with anxiety and, in rare cases, can lead to panic attacks. If you suffer with these symptoms, then a pre-workout is probably not ideal for you.
Finally let’s discuss digestive upsets. Coffee is a diuretic but also has activity on your guts. If you neglect to drink enough water with coffee you can become dehydrated which can lead to constipation. Not ideal for overall health and certainly not helpful for exercise performance.
The point is that diuretics do not cause diarrhea, they cause excess urination, which can lead to dehydration. So I recommend saying either “coffee is a diuretic so can lead to you needing a wee during your workout” or “coffee has activity on your guts so, yes, it can lead to the runs” and just leave out the diuretic part.
Not ideal for overall health and certainly not helpful when you’re in the middle of benching your PB.
How much coffee is best before a workout?
So, we’ve discussed all the benefits and potential risks of introducing a cup of coffee prior to a workout. The next point to cover is how much coffee will give you the optimum caffeine boost without risking the jitters.
As this study suggests, 300-400mg of caffeine per day is the safe upper limit. That’s just over three cups of filter coffee (at 120mg per cup), just over five cups of instant (75mg per cup) or 6 espresso shots (63mg caffeine).
That’s your total consumption for the day – but, remember, people metabolise caffeine differently so higher levels can be safer in different people. The type and brew of coffee can also affect these values too.
Generally, you can follow this rule for drinking coffee before a workout: 3-6mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight. So, for a 68kg individual (150 pounds) 200-400mg is ideal.
It also normally takes about half an hour for the caffeine in coffee to be fully absorbed in your system, but can take up to 90 minutes. For the best results, drink a cup about an hour before you plan to start working out.
How should I take my coffee?
The answer here comes back to personal preference. How do you like your coffee brewed?
Whether it’s freshly ground and made into an espresso or quick and instant, just monitor how much caffeine you’re drinking and you’re good to go.
As for adding extras, it’s generally considered that black is best. Pure, unadulterated coffee contains all the benefits you need for an energetic workout. If black coffee just isn’t for you, then adding a dash of milk shouldn’t have much of a negative affect – just don’t turn it into a big, creamy latte.
And that’s it, all you need to know about using coffee as a pre-workout supplement. Experiment with what works for you and your body – then go forth and use it to go hard at your workouts. Enjoy the ride.