Craig Leonard

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Can Caffeine Really Improve Exercise Performance?

Craig Leonard January 2, 2016
Caffeine Improves Exercise Performance

Pre-workout supplements have surged in popularity in recent years as fitness enthusiasts are increasingly turning to ingesting them before exercise for a boost in energy output, increased focus, enhanced endurance, and even to mentally amp themselves up prior to training.

I’ve long maintained that a cup or two of strong black coffee is the best option for those needing a pick-me-up before heading to the gym. Caffeine is the staple ingredient of pre-workout supplements anyway.

By opting for black coffee you’re able to receive all the benefits an expensive pre-workout supplement provides for much cheaper and without all the sugars, artificial sweeteners, and other synthetic ingredients that are found in virtually every pre-workout supplement being sold today.

In my daily reading and research I recently came across the results of an interesting study that was conducted to determine whether ingesting caffeine before exercise provided any benefit in terms of physical performance.

Before I get into the details of the aforementioned study, I want to make something clear.

While I have a zest for digging into the latest findings in fitness related research, I also strive to maintain the perspective that conclusive personal experience trumps nearly all research findings.

This stems from the fact that most studies are performed using highly specialized conditions and consist of a relatively small number of participants operating under extremely narrow research specifications.

While it may be encouraging when such studies confirm what we’ve come to find true through experience, we would also do well not to abandon lessons learned via experience the moment a study is published that appears to contradict them.

Today’s posting examines the results of a study which can be classified among those that largely confirm what avid exercisers have already collectively ascertained to be true: That ingesting caffeine before working out provides a small but noticeable boost to training focus and physical performance.

The study being referenced comes from the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (click here to read the online annotated version).

The study was performed using two different sets of testing conditions, as follows:

  • Each of the two tests was performed with the participants ingesting 5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. This would be the equivalent of a 200-lb person drinking about 5 cups of coffee or a 120-lb person drinking about 3 cups.
  • The first test involved 14 participants whose maximal voluntary strength (MVC) and motor–unit recruitment of the knee extensors and elbow flexors were tested before and 60 min after ingestion of either a 5-mg per kilogram dose of caffeine or placebo, and after completion of 40 min of exercise (30 min of submaximal leg or arm cycling followed by a 10-min time-trial performance).
  • The second test utilized 12 participants and set out to determine the effects of caffeine on muscle pain and the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during high-intensity exercise. In case it’s a new term to you, RPE is simply a measure of how hard a person feels they’re working.

The results of the study won’t be surprising to those who swear by their pre-workout supplement.

The study concluded that ingesting caffeine prior to exercise improved maximal voluntary strength by 6.3%, motor-unit recruitment by 5.5%, and overall physical performance by 4.9% for those participating in the first test doing submaximal lower body cycling (i.e. cycling with the legs). No discernible difference in any of these metrics was measured for those cycling under submaximal condition with their upper body (i.e. cycling with the arms).

Interestingly, the participants of the first test undergoing submaximal training experienced a reduction in muscle pain and rate of perceived exertion (RPE), while no difference in muscle pain or RPE was measured for those participating in the second test consisting of high intensity training.

What this appears to indicate is that caffeine ingestion may be particularly beneficial prior to engaging in lower intensity, steady state, cardiovascular exercise, such as running, jogging, power walking, jumping rope and other similar training protocols.

There’s also promise in terms of enhanced speed and power output for those of us who enjoy sprinting, as evidenced by the maximal voluntary strength and motor-unit recruitment improvements recorded in the first test group in this study.

For me, personally, when training in the morning or early afternoon, I rarely go into it without at least some caffeine in my system. I trust that you early morning training warriors have already found caffeine to be particularly useful – in the form of a pre-workout supplement or otherwise – for getting revved up and ready to train not long after waking.

On the other hand, I strongly recommend following my lead of refraining from consuming caffeine prior to training in the evening due to the negative impact it will have on your sleep quality.

Poor sleep quality is a problem you want to take every effort to avoid. It’s detrimental to your health and quality of life on a number of levels (see my posting Sleep and Weight Loss: How Not Getting Enough Sleep Will Damn Your Fat Loss Efforts.

As long as it’s not going to negatively impact your quality of rest, it appears that this study confirms what I’ve been recommending to my clients for years: Have a cup or two of strong black coffee 30 minutes before training for a quick boost of temporary energy, along with a slight improvement in training intensity, endurance, focus, and strength output.

What do you think? Do you prefer a little caffeine (or a lot) before training?

Sound off in the comments section below to join the conversation.

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