There are a few convictions with which I live my life. They include (but are not limited to) the following: 1. dogs are pure and precious and all around perfect creatures, 2. Harry Styles is the most stylish man on earth, and 3. coffee is a necessity if one is to kickstart a morning workout. Sure, I'll admit that every single one of those statements is up for debate, but they certainly ring true for me—especially the last one.
If I'm going to wake up to sweat before the sunrise, I always drink a cup of coffee first. Sure, it energizes me to the point where I can finally (albeit begrudgingly) drag myself out of bed, but it also pushes me to go further in my subsequent workout. Whether it's a couple more reps or another quarter of a mile, a pre-workout coffee helps me shake off fatigue—or so I believed. To be honest, I didn't know if this coffee-and-fitness connection was real, or if it was some sort of placebo effect I could thank for uncovering my misplaced motivation. It was a question I could only ask the experts, so that I did.
Meet the Expert
Benefits of Drinking Coffee Before a Workout
You wouldn't peg coffee as the first beverage to turn to before you head out for a sweat session. Surprisingly though, it does come along with some great benefits.
Boost Athletic Performance
According to Moreno, it wasn't all in my head; drinking a cup of coffee before a workout can really, truly, and seriously boost athletic performance. "We do know that caffeine is an ergogenic aid; it can aid in workout performance, likely by increasing energy, focus, and endurance," she explains.
Thomas agrees that coffee has the power to benefit a workout. "Coffee can definitely pump up your athletic performance and enhance work capacity."
Try to limit the amount of sugar you add to coffee. The spike in blood sugar after drinking sugary drinks may give you energy short-term, but you might find yourself crashing mid-exercise.
Reduce Muscle Pain
The day after a tough workout usually results in sore muscles. This proves you kicked butt and are building muscle, but also makes it harder to do every day tasks. Research has shown that adding coffee before a workout may reduce that muscle pain and stiffness. Not only that, but participants in the study who enjoyed a cup of joe pre-workout were able to complete more repetitions on their final set.
Keep You Focused
Coffee is a stimulant, which keeps you alert and improves concentration. "I've had coffee before weight training and also prior to a boxing-martial arts class and indeed felt a boost of cognitive function," Thomas says. "Especially if you are hitting the boxing mitts where at times several combinations link together. This takes tremendous mental and responsive focus."
Research has shown that the addition of caffeine can significantly improve endurance performance but also cognitive ability during exercise. This could be beneficial for activities where concentration is necessary.
Drawback of Drinking Coffee Before a Workout
There are two instances that can occur in which Thomas suggests forgoing coffee.
Anxiety or Shakes
If you're not a coffee drinker in general and/or you're more susceptible to the negative effects of caffeine, skip it. To put it differently, if you drink a cup of coffee every now and then only to feel slightly anxious or shaky, it will probably do the same thing even if you're drinking it before a workout.
"Coffee is indeed a double edged sword and can be way too powerful for some," Thomas explains. "I'd suggest experimenting with a single espresso shot and have it over ice then add water to it to dilute it as opposed to a large bold cup of coffee that has been brewing in a percolator for an extended period of time."
If you're constantly stressed you may experience adrenal fatigue or exhaustion which creates low energy, brain fog, lightheadedness, and other symptoms. "This may occur when your adrenal glands are being maxed out, day in and day out by emotional worry or fear, a lack of sleep, too much sugary stuff, excess caffeine in your diet, loads of carbohydrates, processed foods and a hurry, hurry, squeeze-as-much-into-the-day-as-possible kind of lifestyle." In that case, coffee isn't necessarily the healthiest option; you might think about sticking to water or tea to hydrate and wean yourself off of caffeine.
When to Drink Coffee Before a Workout
Both Moreno and Thomas agree that the best time to drink coffee is well before the workout actually begins. You shouldn't drink it when you're sweating (at that point, your body needs water to re-hydrate—not coffee). Thomas suggests having coffee 30-60 minutes prior to a workout, whereas Moreno suggest having coffee a little before that. "Caffeine takes about 15-20 minutes to kick in, depending on your individual metabolism (we all actually have some genetic differences in how we metabolize caffeine, in addition to building a tolerance, since it is, indeed, a drug)," she explains.
It might take some experimentation, but drinking coffee in the 15-60 minute range ahead of a workout is your best bet for boosting your athletic performance most efficiently—that is, if you like coffee and it doesn't make you feel anxious or shaky or over-energized.
Alternatives to Coffee Before a Workout
If coffee isn't your thing, or you want to amp up your coffee a bit, there are other options you may want to consider.
Classic, right? You need water to stay hydrated and replace the lost fluids that you're going to encounter once your workout gets started. The American Council on Exercise recommends that you gulp down about 20 ounces of water, two to three hours before working out and another eight ounces 20 to 30 minutes pre-workout. Once the sweat session is over, replace your losses with another eight ounces of water.
If you're looking for flavor, add a squeeze of lemon, lime, or other fresh fruit to your water. Other additions like cucumber and herbs can ramp up the flavor as well.
A little spin on the classic water option, coconut water is full of electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and magnesium. Electrolytes are important for physical activity because they are lost through sweat. The American Council on Exercise says that keeping electrolytes replenished helps maintain fluid balance, muscle contractions, and neural activity. A lot of sports drinks have added electrolytes, but the difference here is that coconut water doesn't contain all of the added sugars that sports drinks tend to have.
Add Protein Powder
If you want coffee, you don't have to drink it black. In fact, both Moreno and Thomas recommend supplementing your daily coffee with some healthy additions. "If you're looking for an efficient "whole" breakfast in addition to the coffee you can slurp on the way to the gym, you can add some grass-fed whey protein powder, like RSP Nutrition TrueFit, into your coffee, which will give you a nice bump of protein, fiber, and probiotics and be a more 'complete' breakfast in addition to the caffeine from the coffee, to power a workout." Plus, it has a vanilla and cinnamon flavor that Moreno says "can fold quite deliciously" into your brew.
Add Butter or MCT oil
As for Thomas, he's been researching the latest trend that is adding butter and MCT oil into morning coffee. "As of late, the popularity of adding organic, grass fed butter, ghee or coconut oil/MCT to coffee has been on the rise and these days, can even be ordered at your favorite coffee shop. It's been said to have brain boosting functions and can accelerate athletic performance," he said. "From what I've researched, this trend actually is derived from indigenous practices dating back to the 7th century within the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Bhutan, India, and most famously, Tibet. Each morning, workers in cold climates would be served a bowl of yak butter tea- made with black tea (pu erh), salt, yak milk, and yak butter."
Hurley C F, Hatfield D L, Riebe D A. "The effect of caffeine ingestion on delayed onset muscle soreness." 3101-3109. 2013.
Hogervorst E, Bandelow S, Schmitt J, et al. "Caffeine improves physical and cognitive performance during exhaustive exercise." 1841-51. 2008.