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Cyclists Went Faster After Drinking Coffee… Will It Help Your Workout?

  • A new study found cyclists benefited from a morning cup of coffee.
  • Researchers suspect the caffeine may help, but are exploring if other antioxidants help boost performance.
  • More research needs to be done to understand the benefits of caffeine.

Researchers have found that men and women may be able to improve athletic performance by drinking caffeine, specifically in coffee.

The findings add to a growing body of research highlighting the performance-enhancing benefits of the everyday cup of joe.

Previous research investigated pills or powder

The study included 38 people, half of them female, and investigated how drinking coffee before a 5-kilometer (about 3 miles) cycling trial affected performance.

Participants were told to abstain from caffeine, alcohol, and strenuous activity for 12 hours before drinking either a coffee providing 3 milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) they weighed, water containing coffee flavoring (placebo), or nothing at all for the experiment’s control group.

They found coffee significantly improved time trial performance for both sexes. The results indicate not only that men and women respond similarly to coffee, but also that coffee is a practical way to get caffeine before exercising to improve your performance.

“Caffeine is a well-established ergogenic [enhancing physical performance] aid, and recently there has been debate as to whether the same ergogenic benefits observed from caffeine ingestion can be obtained from consuming caffeine in the form of coffee,” lead study author Dr. Neil Clarke, associate professor, School of Life Sciences, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, United Kingdom, told Healthline. “However, most of the research has focused on men ingesting pure caffeine.”

Women, birth control, and caffeine

During the 5K cycling timed trial after coffee consumption, both male and female performance improved significantly compared with the placebo and control groups. No performance differences were measured between the placebo and control group.

“All trials were conducted at the same time of day and were consistent for each participant in order to minimize performance variation due to circadian factors,” the study authors wrote.

Interestingly, the female participants were also required to have taken a monophasic birth control pill for at least 3 months before the trial because: “Both estrogen and oral contraceptive steroids appear to extend the half-life of caffeine,” the authors wrote, “thereby prolonging its effects in the body, although this is unlikely to influence the performance of exercise of the nature used in the present study, due to its short duration.”

How much is too much?

But caffeine isn’t for everyone and it’s not always a good idea. For young athletes, caffeine may do more harm than good.

“Children under 12 years don’t appear to have a safe threshold of caffeine. It’s important to remember that caffeine is not only found in coffee, but also tea, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, and medications; so caffeine amounts can add up quickly without realizing it,” said Dr. Ruby Shah, internist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano.

And according to Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, caffeine can be detrimental in large doses for adults as well.

“It can cause anxiety, raise the heart rate too much, and cause fatigue, or make you jittery and less coordinated in some instances. Some think the diuretic effect can be harmful, but it’s not typically a major issue in our athletes,” he said.

Rivadeneyra added that sports nutrition is a complex field, where caffeine is a mainstay, particularly for many athletes and teams. “Even in the last year, there’s been a lot of publicity in the NBA about teams even traveling with their own preferred coffee setups; grinders, brewers and beans.”

Unknown role of antioxidants found in coffee

Clarke said it’s possible that other components of coffee have a beneficial effect on performance, although he can’t say for sure. “It could be possible that the antioxidant properties of polyphenols present in coffee could influence performance.”

Clarke added that coffee is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols have been linked with a number of functions that could enhance exercise performance, such as reducing levels of exercise-induced reactive oxygen species and improved nitric oxide synthesis, which improves blood flow.

“Medical literature about coffee has gone back and forth over the years; healthy versus terrible. It has caffeine, water, and some antioxidants in it. No one really knows how beneficial those antioxidants may or may not be,” said Rivadeneyra.

The bottom line

While previous studies have shown caffeine powders or pills can improve athletic performance, new research shows getting your caffeine dose from drinking coffee also provides significant benefits.

Both male and female participants in a double-blind controlled trial improved their time biking a 5K course, showing that it works for either sex.

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