According to the National Coffee Association, more than 80% of American adults drink coffee — and most start their morning with at least one cup. That makes coffee an integral ingredient to millions of peoples’ days, whether they’re having breakfast, stopping for a jolt en route to work or even going to the gym.
A 2015 study in Circulation found coffee consumption was associated with a lower total risk of mortality compared to non-coffee drinkers. So, if you like the stuff, by all means, keep on liking it. But in addition to its potential health benefits, can coffee boost athletic performance? Yes it can, says the American College of Sports Medicine.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
Lab studies show caffeine ingestion at a rate of 3–9 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight prior to exercise “increases performance during prolonged endurance exercise and short-term intense exercise lasting approximately five minutes.” So if you’re an endurance athlete, like a runner or cyclist or if you need a boost for a 1-mile run caffeine can help. But if you’re a sprinter, it may be less effective. The study notes that “caffeine does not appear to enhance performance during sprinting lasting less than 90 seconds, although research in this area is lacking.”
Of course, this doesn’t just mean you should start chugging coffee before a race, especially if you’re not already a regular coffee drinker.
YOUR INDIVIDUAL MAGIC NUMBER
“Each person has a unique tolerance to caffeine that needs to be honored,” says Nancy Clark, MS, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. To be safe, she suggests drinking the amount you normally drink.
Not all caffeinated beverages are created equal. Clark notes that coffee has more caffeine per cup — about 200–300 milligrams — than what you’ll find in Red Bull (80 milligrams per 8-ounce can) or 5-hour Energy (200 milligrams per serving). So it pays to know how much you’re ingesting.
PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
For years, caffeine was thought to be a diuretic, so athletes were advised against drinking too much coffee or other caffeinated beverages leading up to events. More recently, studies have shown caffeine can have a mild, short-term diuretic effect, causing the drinker to produce more urine shortly after consumption. But over the course of 24 hours, caffeine does not show a net dehydrating effect. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any risks to your athletic performance, however.
“Beware of the jitters if you drink coffee on an empty stomach or drink more than you generally consume,” says Clark. Too much caffeine can also upset your stomach, causing nausea or gastrointestinal distress, two things all athletes should be wary of. And if you overdo it, general restlessness and sleepless nights can occur, impacting your ability to rest before or recover after a big event.
Caffeine is a legal supplement allowed by professional sports leagues, the NCAA, the International Olympic Committee and countless athletes use it to their advantage. You can, too. You might notice increased endurance on runs, bike rides and in your workouts. But, as with all things, a little moderation goes a long way toward keeping you in the race.