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Coffee and Caffeine

by Mark Sisson, Author


Coach Seiji, a regular contributor to this site, has turned me on to a great site on health and nutrition. It's called Mark's Daily Apple, and it's a website full of great articles on general fitness and well being, most of which apply to the motocross rider. This is one such article. - Virtual Trainer

In today’s edition of Dear Mark, I cover a topic near and dear to many of your hearts: caffeine. But I don’t just cover caffeine; I explore whether caffeine truly does act as a diuretic, especially during exercise, and whether or not caffeine can actually be helpful to athletic performance. Should we all be downing mugs of joe or cups of tea before we hit the gym or head outdoors?

Let’s find out.

Dear Mark,
I’ve been told that drinking coffee prior to, or during workouts is a big no-no, because it’s a diuretic and will lead to dehydration, which is no good for performance (or health). But I love an iced coffee right before my workouts. I feel like it helps. It could just be placebo, but if it’s not hurting, I’m okay, right?

I wonder if you could give me the lowdown on what the literature says. Thanks!

First, let’s tackle the dehydration question. It has undoubtedly become “common knowledge” that coffee is a potent, perhaps the most potent, diuretic, that drinking it is like drinking negative water, and that if you’re stuck on a desert island you’d be better off drinking your own saliva than that steaming cup of joe from the Starbucks that inexplicably decided to set up shop on a desert island. Yeah, there are a lot of scary stories about coffee, but does it hold up to scrutiny?

No. A quick search on PubMed turns up a couple German-only studies with vociferously and unambiguously worded titles but no abstracts (“Coffee does not cause dehydration!” and “Coffee does not dehydrate. New studies of Germany’s favorite addiction: coffee.”), as well as some English ones with abstracts:

  • One from the University of Connecticut measured fluid, electrolyte, and renal indices of hydration over eleven days of caffeine consumption in human subjects. Doses of up to 6 mg caffeine per kilogram of body weight had no effect on body mass, urine osmolality (urine concentration), urine specific gravity (concentration of excreted materials in urine), urine color, urine volume, sodium excretion, potassium secretion, creatinine content, blood urea nitrogen (forms when protein breaks down), and serum levels of sodium and potassium, causing the researchers to conclude that caffeine does not cause dehydration.
  • Another compared hydration markers in patients who consumed either caffeinated beverages (coffee and cola), non-caffeinated beverages (coffee and other sodas), and/or water. The effect on hydration status was essentially uniform across all beverage categories, regardless of caffeine content.
  • And finally, a review from the American College of Sports Medicine found that not only does caffeine not reduce hydration nor induce electrolyte imbalances, it has no effect on heat tolerance during exercise.

I think that settles that. Caffeine does not dehydrate you or cause you to overheat. It’s “safe.” It’s not bad for the active athlete.

But is it actually good? Does it do anything except fail to dehydrate you?

Oh, yeah. Let’s dig into the literature to find out what it can do for your athletic performance.

Endurance Exercise

Most of exercise/caffeine literature centers on endurance training and performance. I remember back when I was running, the most oft-cited benefit to caffeine before a race or training was that it would increase the oxidation of fat, thus sparing muscle glycogen. That sounds nice and tidy, and it would be awesome if it were true, but the most recent evidence suggests that caffeine has little, if any, effect on fat or glycogen metabolism during endurance exercise. So what are we to make of the older evidence that does show a difference in fat oxidation after caffeine ingestion? Or the 1992 study that found caffeine reduced the tendency of muscle to burn glycogen early on during extended bouts of exercise, thus “sparing” it for later on?

It may be that caffeine simply makes exercise more tolerable, makes muscles work harder and better, and allows those exercising to do so harder. One study found that while pre-workout caffeine did not spare glycogen, it did boost the endorphin response to exercise. If endorphins are high, exercise is more tolerable, even enjoyable. If caffeine can increase the runner’s high, it’s also going to make exercise more effective and more self-perpetuating.

Whatever the case may be, the literature is pretty clear that caffeine improves endurance performance, perhaps by enhancing fuel partitioning or making exercise more tolerable and enjoyable.

Anaerobic Exercise

The extent of research into the effects of caffeine on anaerobic performance – think sprints, weight lifting, and interval training – is limited, but useful literature exists. One review, from 2009, noted that while caffeine appears beneficial to speed endurance training (in the realm of 60 to 180 seconds) and high intensity interval training (HIIT), it has limited use in power sports. It may help lower body muscle endurance, but it appears to have a minimal effect on the upper body. The authors propose a number of mechanisms for caffeine’s action, including enhanced calcium transport and the old fat utilization/glycogen sparing thing, but the most promising idea is that caffeine simply stimulates the central nervous system enough to blunt adenosine receptors, increase pain tolerance, and dampen perceived exertion.

What about resistance training? In one study, caffeine ingestion boosted trained women’s 1RM in the bench press (PDF). In another, caffeine seemed to have no effect. A review from 2010 determined that short-term, acute ingestion of caffeine is beneficial in team-based and power sports, but mostly in individuals who did not routinely ingest caffeine. Six of eleven resistance training studies reviewed in the study showed benefits to caffeine ingestion, so the evidence remains fairly equivocal.

Thus, when you drink coffee before lifting heavy things or sprinting, your performance will not suffer – and it may even improve.

It may even be a simpler, less exciting explanation than anything overtly physiological: that the “benefits” of caffeine to physical performance may actually be a cessation of the negative effects of caffeine withdrawal. As Sweat Science points out in a recent post, before double-blind trials on the effect of caffeine on performance, participants must abstain from caffeine for a day or two. If they’re habitual caffeine fiends (as many people are), by the time they begin the study they’re already suffering withdrawals. Studies on cognitive performance and caffeine have found that when you account for the withdrawal effect, caffeine has little to no benefit to performance. Researchers have yet to examine the withdrawal effect in studies on athletic performance, but it appears a likely candidate for at least some of the reported benefit to caffeine consumption.

It’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that most of us are drinking coffee, not popping pure caffeine pills. Coffee contains tons of polyphenols, bioactive compounds that could have beneficial (or negative) effects on exercise performance. Most of the studies are looking at caffeine, so they have to isolate it. But if you’re drinking coffee, shouldn’t you look for studies that examine coffee? There’s a recent one that found ingesting coffee polyphenols increased fat oxidation (PDF). Of course, the caffeine, polyphenol, and other bioactive compound contents of coffee are not stable. Coffee is a food made up of hundreds of factors. It’s not just a source of caffeine. Based on soil conditions, climate, elevation, roast, and variety of bean, two cups of coffee can display remarkably different characteristics, and it’s likely that the effects of each on exercise performance will also differ.

Bottom line, though: if coffee makes you perform better, keep drinking it before, during, or after you workout. At least we can say for sure that it’s not dehydrating you.

This article was reprinted with permission from I highly encourage you to check it out.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    motojoel March 01, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Hey guys, thanks.
    Does that go for some of the highly caffeinated drinks other than coffee? Red bull, green tea, etc?

  2. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer March 01, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    No on the "Energy" Drinks. Yes on Green Tea.

  3. Gravatar
    Justin March 01, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    i am convinced that caffeine specifically coffee if taken before a race causes the rider's mind to be too busy, over think, and ride tight. I think the key to riding with confidence and getting in the zone is being in the moment without any thought, a blank mind only focused on the task at hand... kinda like Tom cruise in the last samurai when he slays those 5 dudes in a moment with out a sword ;) everything slows down, becomes simpler, and easier... caffeine causes everything to speed up and perhaps hinders your natural adrenaline flow which also could aid you in riding "inspired". i was hoping this article would support my belief but it seems to disprove it! What do you think? Can coffee cause a premature adrenaline dump, or give a false adrenaline and thus hinder the natural flow that would aid you to ride better?

  4. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer March 01, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I think you are giving caffeine way too much credit. We are talking small gains when it comes to moto. The main point of the article was to show that 1.) Caffeine is NOT a diuretic like commonly believed, and 2.) since most Americans love their coffee, I wanted to show that they can have their coffee and race too.

    And I totally agree with you that the key to speed is relaxed riding. Maybe I am the exception, but I can ingest a fair amount of caffeine and sleep like a baby. If you get all jacked up on caffeine, then maybe its best to skip it before you race. The key is finding what works for you.

  5. Gravatar
    kris March 02, 2012 at 8:37 am

    I have a like and dislike for the marksdailyapple website. This website used to be on my favorites, but after trying to go Paleo, I find his whole "grok" thing a bit of a gimmick. At the heart of the Paleo diet, it's destructive, because it's based on an evolutionary theory that we haven't adapted to whole grains, when in fact humans have been consuming whole grains back to earliest days of creation. They just didn't consume instant potatoes and wonder bread.

  6. Gravatar
    MIKE315 March 02, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    pay attention to the tdf. if you have ever been at the finish line of a bike race you will notice almost everyone has a coke or pepsi or orange soda. Only use caffiene later in the day if you need the pick up.

  7. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer March 02, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Kris - I agree with you. I like MarksDaileyApple but certainly do not believe in everything he posts. I agree the whole Grok thing is a little annoying, but in general when he speaks, I listen. Then I form my opinion on whether I believe what he is saying. I liked this article in particular b/c of the scientific research sited in the article to back up the claims. And by no means am I a 100% Paleo convert. Until my cardiologist tells me otherwise, I tend to FOLLOW what he has to say and LISTEN to what others have to say.

    Mike315 - Yep for sure, if you run or cycle you know full well that coke, pepsi, and other forms of soda are around. But I don't think they are drinking soda for the caffeine. For me personally after a really hard, long workout when I sweat a ton, I love a 1/2 can or so of Coke. The quick sugar hit eliminates the shakes, soothes my "pain" and allows me to focus on my cool down.

  8. Gravatar
    CL March 04, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Let's remember not all "coke" is created equal. The USA is the only country where coke is produced with High Fructose Corn Syrup; the rest of the world gets real cane sugar....

  9. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer March 05, 2012 at 6:38 am

    Not sure that that really matters. All the research I have reviewed says that there is no difference in the way our bodies process HFCS and sugar. The problem with HFCS and the reason it gets such a bad rap is because it is in EVERYTHING! In and of itself, HFCS is no worse for you than sugar. Both are dependent on the amount of consumption.

  10. Gravatar
    Casey Pons March 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Interesting read. For as long as I can remember, caffeine and I have not been the best of friends. Clear back to the high school days, my (future) wife and her family would drink 12 to 14 cups a day each. And when I started dating her as a senior, I tried to keep up with her coffee quota and wondered why I was starring at the ceiling all night and not sleeping. This continued to the point of seeking medical advise and was tested as actually being allergic to caffeine. Coffee and I went our separate ways but, just the last few years I have taken up consuming (moderately) good quality Green Tea, and have found that it does not give me that uncomfortable (wired) feeling coffee does but a nice warm little buzz without the wet feet and cold clammy handshakes with your clients (not good). That said, my consumption is limited to two cups (three is pushing the issue) in the morning and none after 2:00PM if do not want to count spiders on the ceiling at 3:53AM anymore. What brought me to this article was (and I will whisper) the huge financial support the sport of Motocross/Supercross and every other outdoor sport, receives from (you know who) so, one must needn't bite the hand that quenches ones thirst, or pays ones mortage, so to speak. That is a fine line to straddle, so will leave it there....
    Great article, Mark!

  11. Gravatar
    Casey Pons March 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    PS Sorry, I was referring to a, "Home Mortgage" (not) "Uncle Mort's age" ;~}}}

  12. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer March 26, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Casey - 12-14 cups of coffee??? WOW that's a lot for anyone. No wonder you were up all night. I think 1-2 cups per days is plenty.

  13. Gravatar
    Casey Pons March 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    They say love is a beautiful thing, however 12-14 cups will make you question just what beauty really is. Especially when you are allergic to caffeine... and not beauty. Moderation in all things, is also a thing of beauty. Ha!

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