One extra cup of coffee an hour before your workout may make exercising easier and boost your performance even if you have been chugging joe habitually, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The new research flies in the face of conventional wisdom that has advised athletes to stop drinking coffee or any caffeinated drink for most of the week before a major competition.
The alertness that caffeine provides seems to make exercise feel less strenuous, and the boost makes it easier for muscles to burn body fat. But coffee drinkers tend get used to its effects. Leaving off coffee for a week is supposed to magnify caffeine’s impact on the day of the event, or so the old theory goes.
Not so, say researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. They tested low, moderate and heavy caffeine users in specialized time trials by giving them tablets containing caffeine equal to four cups of coffee or tablets containing placebos. The 40 competitive male cyclists in the study were asked to pedal as hard as they could to burn up 450 calories.
Researchers found the extra caffeine improved performance no matter how much caffeine the cyclists usually drank. Almost all the riders finished their ride 3.3 percent faster when they took the caffeine pill. They clocked in 2.2 percent faster when they took the placebo.
It didn’t matter whether the cyclists fell into the category of light, moderate or heavy caffeine drinkers. And even though habitual coffee drinkers didn’t follow the time-honored practice of abstaining from coffee but kept right on chugging away in the days before the trials, they still saw the jolt in their performance.
Just as the cyclists pedaled harder and faster, the study indicates that athletes who drink a cup of java an hour before exercise could swim or run faster. Translate the cyclists’ 2 percent to 3 percent performance boost to average marathon runners, and those runners could take several minutes off their race time. The finding could be particularly welcome for athletes who don’t want to give up coffee for a week before an event to get the caffeine advantage.
There is a downside to drinking coffee. Even people who regularly consume caffeine recognize the side effects of jitters, stomach upset, headaches and heart palpitations. Start with small doses if you want to improve your performance, such as one cup of coffee before exercise.
Notice that the study was limited to young men in top physical condition. The study’s authors point out that more research still needs to be done to determine if caffeine has the same effect on women.