If you work out first thing in the morning, chances are, at one time or another, you’ve been on the sleepy side and had to drag yourself out of bed with a little extra pep talk and motivation in your head.
Ask any person, who regularly trains in the morning, what their pre-workout routine is, and more than likely, you hear one of the more popular responses:
Several research articles and studies in health and fitness publications over the past several years have claimed it’s actually a great enhancement to any workout.
According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that drinking a couple cups of coffee before a workout can actually make it feel more enjoyable.
The study evaluated the differences that 14 total participants experienced when they took caffeine (equal to two 8-ounce cups of coffee or 4 cups of black tea) and worked out on a stationary bike vs. no caffeine and a workout on a stationary bike. The findings? When caffeinated, the participants reported the ride as way easier than it was without the stimulant. (1.)
Health Magazine reported on another study (2), published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, that found coffee enhanced fat-burning in exercise participants. Researchers concluded that “trained athletes who took in caffeine pre-exercise burned about 15 percent more calories for three hours post-exercise, compared to those who ingested a placebo.
And still, one more study found that coffee before a workout increases an athlete’s ability to draw extra energy and enhance their performance, particularly during endurance workouts. (3.)
In addition to all this research, we also hear about the popularity of the highly-touted Bulletproof coffee and diet, claiming if we drink a quality cup of low-toxin coffee beans + MCT Oil + Grass-fed butter, our energy and superpowers will soar through the roof. The burst of caffeine and specific fats is supposedly the ultimate recipe to boost your brain and brawn, fuel workouts and even shrink waistlines.
While coffee is actually a very natural substance (granted you are not adding artificial sweeteners, sugar or processed creams and milks), it is one of those ‘gray’ areas as to whether or not athletes really do benefit from the cup of Joe before a morning workout.
And, much like our training methodology, caffeine consumption—and the amount of consumption—is completely individualized, depending on the client.
Trainee #1: Daily Exerciser. 40-year-old male. Training for life.
Works out: 6:30 a.m. every day, at least 5 days per week.
Primary goals: Continue to gain strength and fitness (for life).
Drinks: Coffee is a ‘ritual’ for him. 1 cup of black coffee on an empty stomach, along with water before his workouts every morning while he reads the paper. Coffee is a simply a part of a routine and makes him feel more ‘awake’ on his early mornings. Somewhat would say he is ‘dependent’ on wanting it, because he likes it, but could also easily go without it if not available. No more coffee needed later on in the day.
The Verdict? Neither here nor there. If he wants the coffee, drink the coffee. Not directly impacting from his gains in the gym—positively or negatively. And he is not addicted to the stimulus the caffeine gives him, as he is able to abstain if needed.
Trainee #2: Daily Grinder. 28-year-old male. Training for sport, competition, gains.
Works out: 5 a.m. every morning; trains at least 6 days per week.
Primary goals: Build muscle and strength; Make top 20 in the 2016 CrossFit Open
Drinks: 2 cups of black coffee + Pre-workout supplements + Protein powder, 1 scoop every morning before his workouts every morning. Hits a wall around 10 a.m. in his mid-mornings, and typically reaches for another cup of coffee or two at that time. And some days, on his two-a-days, he has more pre-workout supplements prior to his afternoon sessions.
The Verdict? Running off adrenaline. This kid is dependent on caffeine—and has become highly dependent on needing stimulants to get him going. Caffeine stimulation + heightened cortisol (adrenaline) from both the coffee and his tough workouts=not ideal for his body, his hormones and his long-term gains (read more below). However, in the short-term, the overstimulation from caffeine and adrenaline actually seemingly keep him going, and fuel the fire to grind it out in the gym day in and day out.
Trainee #3: Recreational Athlete. 32-year-old female. Training for local competitions; fitness for life; the ability to keep up with her 2 and 4-year-old children.
Works out: 8:30 a.m. every morning; trains at least 4-5 days per week.
Primary goals: Be healthy and improve her fitness for her own gratification and joy of training.
Drinks: 2 cups of coffee + Splenda + almond milk every morning with her breakfast of eggs and oats. Coffee is a ritual she’s been doing since her college days and has no idea what a morning is like without it. Throughout the rest of the day, she is also a recreational coffee drinker. May not need it later, but if she meets up with a friend at a coffee shop or drives by a Starbucks, a latte is never past her.
The Verdict? Walking the line. Primarily the artificial sweeteners are not her friend for a host of digestive health and general wellness reasons (linked with brain fog, nausea, cellular damage, metabolic dysfunction). On the coffee front, if she could cut back to one cup of Joe with her breakfast, and let herself become less dependent on needing the stimulant to get her going, she may be able to actually tap into more innate and raw potential in the gym, as opposed to hormonally, running (and depending) on coffee as part of her pre-workout routine.
In essence, for all of these examples: the verdict of whether coffee is really beneficial before a workout all comes down to a matter of your hormones and stress levels.
This, coupled with the additional stress of a workout on your body, day in and day out, can yield some not-so-positive effects.
Here’s the main problem:
With repetitive stress, your adrenal glands start to burn out from overuse, which can lead to a host of problems, including:
So to drink or not to drink?
That answer is completely up to you.
And it really all comes down to: Are you dependent on it or not?
If you only have the occasional cup of coffee, your adrenals will be able to react quickly and capably to this kind of stimulation. However, if you are consuming several cups of coffee each day, your body begins to have a weakened reaction to that caffeine (i.e. you need MORE to get that ‘edge’ or alertness). Some say that their ‘tolerance’ has increased, or meet that need by upping the coffee consumption, but the truth is actually quite opposite.
Depending on how much caffeine you consume, it definitely can make you feel as if you have more energy, especially within the first couple of hours after consumption. However, once the effects of the caffeine have worn off, you’ll actually feel more tired than you did before you drank it.
If you’ve become dependent on caffeine/coffee, you may need to re-evaluate why that is.
Ask yourself: Does caffeine really give you an energy boost? Or is it actually leading to a more unhealthy stress response?
Ultimately, if you really want to see what your body is capable of (gains, recovery), but are also overly dependent on caffeine and stimulants to fuel your already-tough (and stressful) workouts: you may be blunting your optimal potential.
Journal of Applied Physiology Aug 2014, DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00570.2014. http://jap.physiology.org/content/early/2014/08/14/japplphysiol.00570.2014.article-info