Can Caffeine Be Beneficial to Your Exercise Regimen?

Hey Everyone,

It is the New Year and with the New Year comes resolutions.  Every January, roughly one in three Americans resolve to better themselves in some way.  However, a much smaller percentage of people actually stick with their resolutions.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the number one New Year’s resolution is to lose weight and the fifth is to stay fit and healthy.  A 2002 study found that while 75% of people maintain their goals for at least a week, less than half are still on target six months later.

So how do we stick to our workout goals?...perhaps with CAFFEINE.

Caffeine is a stimulant that gives you extra stamina and increases your heart rate, which improves blood flow to the rest of your body.  It is also ergogenic.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ergogenic as “increasing capacity for bodily or mental labor especially by eliminating fatigue symptoms.”  The ergogenic effects of caffeine start at levels as low as 250 milligrams (mg).

Additionally, caffeine increases the amount of adrenaline in your body, stimulating the release of free fatty acids from fat tissue and/or skeletal muscle.  This reduces the muscle’s consumption of carbohydrates, which is known as the glycogen sparing effect.  In turn, this improves endurance.  The glycogen sparing effect appears during short-term intense aerobic exercises as well as in longer activities.

Researchers from Coventry University in England recruited 13 fit men and had them repeat a standard weight-training gym routine over a period of time.  On one day, the men consumed a sugar-free energy drink containing caffeine one hour prior to the workout.  On another day, they drank the same beverage without the caffeine an hour before the workout.  The men were told to lift, press and squat until exhaustion.  The days that they consumed the caffeinated energy drink, exhaustion arrived much later.  Furthermore, the men completed a much higher amount of repetitions in all the exercises after they consumed the beverage with caffeine.

It was also reported that the men felt less tired during the workout and that they were more excited to workout again.  Michael Duncan, a senior lecturer in sports science at the University of Exeter in England and the lead author of the study, stated, “They would put more work into the training session, and when the session was finished, in the presence of the caffeinated drink, they were more psychologically ready to go again.”

Dr. Duncan theorizes that caffeine reduces adenosine levels, “which then enables more forceful muscular contractions and delays fatigue.”  Adenosine is a substance in muscles that builds up during exercise and hinders the force of contractions.

Caffeine’s major benefit in the short-term might also lie in the reduction of lactic acid during exercise.  Do you know the burning sensation you get in your muscles while working out?  Well that is due to the build up of lactic acid in the muscles as glycogen is depleted.  The University of Illinois conducted a study in 2009 that provided subjects with caffeine before working out.  It was found that 300 mg of caffeine taken prior to exercise reduced the amount of burning felt by the subjects in the study.

Most recently, it has been discovered that caffeine affects the calcium and potassium ions in skeletal muscle cells, thus enhancing the strength of muscle contraction.  For an experiment published in The Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers asked a group of volunteers who regularly play team sports to complete a difficult workout designed to imitate the physical exertion of a soccer or basketball game.  When volunteers consumed a caffeine capsule 70 minutes before the workout, they performed 16% better than not taking one.  The volunteers also had a lot less potassium in the fluid between their muscles afterwards and a lot more calcium.

One of the experiment’s authors, Magni Mohr, an exercise physiologist affiliated with both the University of Exeter and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, believes that potassium buildup is involved in the type of fatigue associated with anaerobic activities, such as team sports and weight training.

Caffeine was even on the Olympics’ list of forbidden substances until January 2, 2004.  Since then, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has established an upper threshold.  If an athlete’s blood-level is equivalent to eight cups of coffee, then he/she will be banned from the games.  As defined by the IOC, caffeine is a “controlled or restricted substance.”  Athletes are allowed up to 12 micrograms (μg) per milliliter (ml) of urine before it is considered illegal.  In the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) the acceptable limit is 15 μg/ml of urine.

There is an extremely low chance of reaching those limits through normal caffeine consumption, except when there are smaller volumes of coffee with very high caffeine concentrations.  Therefore, if an athlete has an illegal amount in his/her urine, then it is highly probable that the athlete took supplementary caffeine tablets to improve performance.

In one study, more than 2/3 of 20,680 Olympic athletes had caffeine in their urine.  The highest amounts found among triathletes, cyclists, and rowers.  The New York Times even calls caffeine the “most popular drug in sports” today.

Now for the bad news…habitual use of caffeine reduces all of the above effects.  Like any other drug, while the initial effects are big, over time it is reduced.  However, if you are not habituated, studies have shown that the optimal dosage is 2-3 mg of caffeine for every kilogram you weigh.  For most people, this is equivalent to 2-3 cups.  And for optimal results, consume caffeine an hour before your workout.

Now grab some coffee and stick to your New Year’s resolutions!


Prevalence of caffeine use in elite athletes following its removal from the World Anti-Doping Agency list of banned substances.

Effects of carbohydrate and caffeine co-ingestion on a reliable simulated soccer-specific protocol.

Caffeine and Exercise Performance from the ACSM

Caffeine intake improves intense intermittent exercise performance and reduces muscle interstitial potassium accumulation.