Most of us can’t dream of waking up without a cup of steaming, hot coffee waiting for us. There is good news for regular coffee drinkers; caffeine is proven to improve athletic performance. This is also good news for those who do not consume java on a regular basis, as the same results have been found in both groups of people.
For regular caffeine addicts and athletes we’ve known this concept to be true for years. Unfortunately, the mechanism for improvement hasn’t been well publicized to corroborate our subjective assessments.
So, how does caffeine affect exercise? Let’s start by identifying the fact that caffeine has been shown to reduce perceived effort, making exercise appear to be more enjoyable. The reduced perception of effort is due to elevated beta-endorphins that account for pain. The body then makes us think that we aren’t exerting as much energy as we actually are expending.
When drinking a caffeinated beverage prior to exercise, an athlete may experience better muscle recruitment while actually increasing energy expenditure through fatty acid oxidation. Caffeine may spare muscle glycogen and increase fat oxidation during this period.1 The spared glycogen can then be used for more direct physical needs later on.
This can also change the mindset of the athlete to focus less on the task at hand because the perceived intensity of the exercise is reduced due improved muscle recruitment.
The question then remains as to how much caffeine an athlete actually needs to see a physiological benefit? An athlete needs about 3-4 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight to see a significant improvement in exercise performance.2 Additional caffeine after this point is negligible. To translate this, a 150-pound athlete would need about 200-275 milligrams of caffeine prior to or during to exercise each day to see noticeable aerobic improvement. To take it one step further, this would account for one to two 8-ounce cups of coffee, five 12-ounce sodas, or three to four 8-ounce cups of black tea, all depending on the strength and type of brew.
The next time you take your last sip of coffee, consider your exercise fete for the day and embark on it with renewed confidence that things are actually much worse than you perceive them to be.
1Schubert MM, et al J Appl. Physiol. 117:745‐754, 2014.
2Graham, T.E. and L.L. Spriet J Appl. Physiol. 78: 867‐874, 1995.