This post was inspired by Marisa who was interested in the effects of caffeine on general health, and by extension, fitness.
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Caffeine can be a very powerful tool used to aid your fitness endeavors, but because it is so powerful, it’s something that should be approached with caution and understanding. In fact (and I was very surprised to learn this), caffeine was one on the list of forbidden substances in the Olympics at a “blood-level equivalent of 8 cups of coffee” until 2004 when it was lifted. This fact in itself speaks well to the power of caffeine; both good and bad.
So, let’s start with the basics… What IS caffeine? What does it DO?
- Caffeine is a stimulant. This means that it provides you with extra stamina, it increases your heart rate, it improves blood flow, it reduces fatigue, and, less tangibly, it provides you with mental excitation.
- Caffeine is a diuretic. This basically means that caffeine makes you have to pee a lot more than normal which overworks your kidneys and can ultimately lead to a dehydrating effect.
- Caffeine is recognized as being an ergogenic substance. This means that (if used properly) it can enhance physical performance, stamina, or recovery.
- Caffeine helps your muscles to function at higher intensity for longer by a process called glycogen sparing. What this means is that having caffeine in your system helps your body begin to use its own fat reserves as energy instead of glycogen, which reduces the glycogen burn rate, which causes delayed muscle fatigue.
- As a result of the glycogen sparing effect, caffeine also helps to reduce lactic acid build up in the muscles. Lactic acid is the pesky little guy responsible for that “burn” you feel, so the less you feel that burn (aka: the less lactic acid build-up in your muscles) the longer you can work out that muscle. This works, because as glycogen gets depleated from the muscles, lactic acid builds up. The slower the glycogen gets used up (aka: glycogen sparing) the less lactic acid build up and the more beastly you can be for longer.
This sounds great for working out, doesn’t it?
Energy! Stamina! Delayed muscle fatigue! Power!
Sure, it does sound great. That’s why so many pre-workouts are based on caffeine.
Here’s an excerpt from an article I read while doing research for this post, “Flipping through popular fitness magazines, you may have seen the ads for products like N.O.-Xplode, Jack3d, Black Powder, Hemo-Rage and my favorite, Assault. While these may sound like new band names on the Warped Tour, they are actually preworkout supplements that you could find at your local vitamin/sport supplement store. They are coupled with tag lines like ‘Amazing Pumps!’ or ‘Unleash Hell in Your Workout!’ and ‘Ignite Yourself!’ These products claim to increase performance in workouts, providing more mental focus, energy, endurance, and blood flow to extremities.”
Many of these supplements contain 100 to 300 milligrams of caffeine in one serving. For comparison’s sake, a regular cup of coffee has about 90 milligrams of caffeine. (Sooo… das a lot of caffeine!)
Annnnnnd, as you can probably sense, I’m getting into the downsides of caffeine…
- You naturally build up a tolerance to caffeine, just like any other drug. Eventually 300 mg of caffeine won’t have any sort of effect on your workout, and then you have to up the dose.
- If you take too much caffeine (via pre-workout, coffee, caffeine pills, etc.) before your workout you may experience some negative side effects such as nausea and vomitting, uncomfortable heart racing or anxious feeling, cramps due to dehydration, and “cramps and diarrhea related to the large intestine contractions caused by caffeine.”
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So, that’s great for people interested in using caffeine as a pre-workout boost, but what about those of you who are curious about chronic caffeine consumption as well?
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As with most other things, caffeine is fine in moderation. (Hell, even a cup every morning is moderate these days.) But, of course, if you’re a chronic AND excessive coffee drinker you may want to consider some of the side effects:
- As mentioned earlier, dehydration. Being the diuretic that caffeine is, it causes a large loss of fluid in the body that can lead to dehydration if not replenished properly.
- Insomnia or troubles sleeping. “The half-life of caffeine in the body is about 6 hours. If you drink a big cup of coffee with 200 mg of caffeine at 4PM, at 10PM you still have about 100mg in your body. By 4AM, you still have 50mg floating in your system. Even though you may be able to sleep, you may not be able to obtain the restful benefits of deep sleep. What’s worse, the cycle continues as you may use more and more caffeine in hopes of counteracting this deficit.”
- And, lastly, hypertension. There’s evidence on both sides of this claim, but because I saw it so repeatedly in my research I feel it’s worth mentioning. High blood pressure is not something that lends itself to a healthy lifestyle.
These are all things to consider when thinking about chronic caffeine consumption in relation to your personal fitness.
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So what’s the conclusion?
Caffeine can be extremely useful as a pre-workout tool, it can be neutral on your fitness if consumed at a moderate rate, and it can be harmful to your goals if abused.
Here are my suggestions for habitual caffeine drinkers:
(1) Drink plenty of water (plenty meaning TONS) in order to stay adequately hydrated despite your caffeine intake.
(2) Avoid drinking caffeine too late in the day so that you’re able to obtain restful sleep. Experiment with it to find your cut-off for caffeine during the day.
Here are my suggestions for pre-workout-ers:
(1) Don’t abuse it; start with small doses, increase gradually, don’t use before every workout, etc. etc.
(2) Take about 1-2 hours before working out for optimal effects.
(3) Use for endurance workouts that will be benefitted by lack of fatigue; cardio, long lifts, etc.
(4) Use for workouts that will benefit from lowered lactic acid build up; heavy lifts, etc.
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And now, I’m going to have a cup of coffee and go work out!
Pura vida and stay strong!
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Sources used for this post: