Grabbing a cup of coffee or tea prior to a workout session is a habit for many. The belief is that a dose of pre-workout caffeine — be it coffee, tea or an espresso shot — can give an energy spike that will lead to a spirited and determined workout session. The ergogenic property of caffeine makes it possible. However, there is confusion too as too much caffeine is considered detrimental to health.
Shreya Dilipkumar Adhav, a Mumbai-based sports nutritionist, says it can be taken provided it is the right type of caffeine and is within the recommended quantity.
“Caffeine recommendation is based on a person’s body weight,” explains Adhav. “There could be side-effects for people who go over the recommended amounts, and they would not get the benefit which they are supposed to before a workout.”
Calculate your caffeine threshold
According to Deepa Nandy, a sports nutritionist and diabetes educator from Mumbai, it is not harmful to consume caffeine prior to the workout if the person maintains their threshold of caffeine intake.
“The threshold of caffeine intake is based on people’s history of having caffeine [mostly in the form of tea and coffee],” says Nandy. “It is different for different people. Depends on the threshold, one can understand and decide how much caffeine [one’s body] can take.”
“As per the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommendation, the dose of caffeine should be somewhere between 2mg to 6mg per kg of body weight,” says Adhav. “Depending on the body weight, one can understand or calculate how much caffeine they are supposed to have in the entire day.”
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant mostly present in tea, coffee and cocoa. It can stimulate the brain and central nervous system, helping in staying alert and delaying fatigue.
“Caffeine comprises of different compounds,” says Adhav. “People usually consume coffee or other food products rich in caffeine to [get some] form of psychological or physiological benefit. When a person consumes any type of caffeine product, the liver breaks down the caffeine before it is taken into the bloodstream for optimal utilisation considering the person’s goals.”
Caffeine, the performance enhancer
Glucose is stored as glycogen in the muscles. Fatigue develops when the stored glycogen is depleted in the active muscles during exercise.
“Caffeine intake enables the glycogen stored in the muscle to last for a longer time. It will help to enhance the overall performance of the workout,” says Adhav.
The moment caffeine gets metabolised by the liver and is taken up by the blood, it leads to a better blood supply to the working muscles. “It not only happens at the muscular level but also at the cellular and psychological level. The improvement will be visible in both aerobic and anaerobic performance,” says Adhav.
Central nervous system stimulant
Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant, and consumption of caffeine right before a workout helps people to be more alert, focused and energetic.
“The person would feel much more energetic due to the sudden rush of the blood circulating throughout the body,” says Adhav. “It enhances the neural response from the brain to the overall body.”
How caffeine affects muscles
Intake of caffeine prior to working out helps with muscle contraction.
“Caffeine functions by blocking the adenosine receptors, which [are] neurotransmitters,” says Nandy. “It prevents the decrease of neuronal activity and is associated with the possibility of increasing muscle fibre recruitment. The intensity of the muscular contraction will increase with the level of recruitment.”
It helps in increasing muscle strength as well.
“We cannot consider only caffeine as one of the superfoods to increase muscle strength,” says Adhav. “One’s overall diet also plays a vital role in the same. But caffeine does enhance the blood supply and the oxygen supply to the working muscle, which helps in muscle growth and even recovery in some individuals.”
Caffeine is a lipolytic agent [a substance that brings about the breakdown of lipids into fatty acids], which enables the body to use fat as fuel.
“During low-to-moderate-intensity exercise, fatty acids replace carbohydrates as the main energy source for working muscles. Naturally, fat oxidation [the process of breaking down fatty acids] starts taking place. Caffeine enhances the process of fat oxidation,” says Nandy.
There may be adverse effects if a person consumes too much caffeine or if their body is not used to it.
“Caffeine has diuretic properties,” says Adhav. “When someone consumes caffeine, their metabolism increases and their organs, especially the kidneys, begin to perform much faster than they would normally. Due to its diuretic effects, coffee can produce fluid electrolyte imbalances in people who regularly consume it as part of their daily routine. This occurs when an individual’s body excretes too much fluid.”
According to a review article published in Sports Med, caffeine can cause dependence and tolerance in people. Tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, consuming more of the substance, a continuous desire for the substance and other factors are characteristics of physical dependency. Headaches, mood swings (irritability, anxiety, despair, etc.), drowsiness, and exhaustion are all related to caffeine withdrawal.
- Pre-workout caffeine intake is a common habit among people for improving their efficiency.
- It is healthy to consume caffeine before working out provided you stick to the recommended quantity or stay within the threshold.
- Enhanced performance, delayed workout fatigue, better focus and alertness, muscle contraction and fat oxidation are the benefits of taking pre-workout caffeine.
- Caffeine overconsumption has adverse effects such as fluid electrolyte imbalance and dependency.