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Is Caffeine the Secret to Rocking Your Next Sweat Session?

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Self_2013_vectorYou’ve known it all along: A grande skim latte has superpowers. But new science says the magic exercise elixir might not be quite as magical as we thought. We break down the buzz.

Exercise can feel easier Caffeine is a chemical. Drink 200 milligrams (a 12-ounce coffee or 32-ounce tea) 15 minutes before a workout, and it may dull signals from neurotransmitters in your brain that perceive pain, says Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D., director of the Neuromuscular and Neurometabolic Clinic at the McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. That pain blunting can last up to five hours. But the amount you consume, and when, is key. You won’t suddenly become invincible drinking more than 200 mg, according to research in Caffeine for Sports Performance. Piling on caffeine is just likely to make you feel anxious and even shaky. Your body also needs those 15 minutes to absorb the chemical. The jolt you feel with your first sip? It’s a Pavlovian response to the drink’s taste, not to the actual drug, explains Bruce Goldberger, Ph.D., director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

There’s a performance boost But it’s not huge. In research on cyclists, runners and cross-country skiers, the latte lift helped athletes push only 1.5 percent to 4 percent longer. Not major, but that little bit can make a difference if you’re on your 50th burpee in boot camp or trying to post a PR in a half marathon. How the boost works: Caffeine causes muscles to release more calcium, which cues muscle fibers to contract with added force. As a result, you get this surge of I-can-do-it energy that allows you to bang out an extra rep or sprint another few seconds. The crazy part? Caffeine’s performance-enhancing perception is so strong that in a British study, exercisers who hadn’t had the drug, but who believed they had taken the stimulant pre-workout, pushed up to 3 percent harder.

It won’t dehydrate you You may skip a pre-workout espresso because you’ve heard caffeine is a diuretic. Nope. Coffee can be as hydrating as water, claim researchers at the University of Birmingham in England, who found that people who have four cups a day show no changes in total body water. That’s not carte blanche to drink Venti upon Venti. Overdoing it can cause heart palpitations and stomach issues, which can wreck your workout, Dr. Tarnopolsky says. Bottom line: When it comes to caffeine, more doesn’t equal better. Good news in the land of $4 coffee.

What’s your experience with drinking a cup of Joe before working out?

 

SELF is the magazine that makes living healthy easy and fun. SELF’s motto: Being fit, strong and active means feeling great, being happy and looking your most beautiful. With trademark authority, SELF speaks to women about three key areas of her being: her body, her looks and her life. SELF makes it fun and fulfilling to be your happiest, healthiest, best self. Reaching a total audience of 12 million each month, SELF is the founder of the Pink Ribbon for breast cancer awareness and an ASME National Magazine Award winner for excellence in journalistic achievement in print and digital. SELF is published by Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Bon Appétit, GQ, Glamour, The New Yorker, Wired and other celebrated media brands. Visit Self.com and follow @SELFmagazine on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foodily and Google+.

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Photo: Satoshi. Coffee art by Michael Breach

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