Whether it’s the aromatic, percolating goodness in your kitchen or that day-making handoff at the local java drive-thru, chances are you don’t feel quite right until you’ve had your morning coffee. But it ain’t just for that Colombian-roasted taste, is it? Most of us seek the caffeinated promise of a shortened morning fog.
An estimated 90 percent of North Americans enjoy a shot of caffeine in one form or another to perk up the brain first thing in the morning or to overcome an afternoon slump. Yet research over the past several years has shown that caffeine is much more than just a wake-up wonder: It works in the brain as a stimulant and in the body to promote potent increases in training intensity and volume. That’s why you’ll find caffeine in most supplements marketed to increase focus, energy and athletic performance, and its ergogenic effects are so remarkable that many sports governing bodies have strict limits for its use in their athletes. For those of us who train hard, here are five ways that caffeine is king.
CAFFEINE BOOSTS ENERGY
Although caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, its effects on energy go far beyond its buzz. One study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports indicated that preworkout caffeine supplementation dampens perceived exertion during and after exercise by almost 6 percent compared to a placebo, which in turn has been shown to improve endurance in aerobic and anaerobic sports. Your cardio workouts will benefit from the increased mobilization of free fatty acids, which get used to fuel extended performance and improves time to exhaustion. For short-duration anaerobic activities such as weight training and power sports, scientists speculate that the caffeine-induced boost in dopamine signaling in the brain promotes increased time to exhaustion. All in all, these data illustrate that taking caffeine before training promotes higher intensity and volume in your workouts and sport performance.
Preworkout caffeine supplementation can also reduce poor training performance due to sleep deprivation — something we all deal with now and then — reported researchers in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Although sleep deprivation led to large decreases in total workout load in this study, sleep-deprived subjects who took caffeine performed as well as those who were rested. Yet non-sleep-deprived individuals who received caffeine performed better than all other groups and experienced increased testosterone levels pre- and postworkout.
CAFFEINE ACUTELY INCREASES STRENGTH
A recent study published in the The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated that ingesting caffeine an hour before intense biceps training (to failure) significantly boosted training volume. And other research published in the same journal reported that taking caffeine one hour before training increased bench press 1RM strength better than a placebo. In terms of lower-body strength, an earlier study found that caffeine supplementation enhanced knee extension and flexion power and strength in elite athletes.
CAFFEINE INCREASES FAT LOSS
Ingesting caffeine before low-intensity aerobic exercise has been scientifically shown to boost lipolysis (fat burning), an effect based on two known mechanisms. First, there’s a synergistic increase in norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and epinephrine (adrenaline) release associated with the combination of exercise and caffeine supplementation. Norepinephrine is a key regulator of fatty acid release from fat cells into the circulation to be burned for energy. Second, caffeine competes with adenosine on adenosine receptors in fat cells; under normal conditions, adenosine binds to fat cells and hinders the release of fatty acids. Taking caffeine blocks this inhibitory effect of adenosine on fatty acid release, resulting in greater fat mobilization and availability for metabolism.
CAFFEINE AIDS IN RECOVERY
There are even benefits to taking caffeine after exercise. In an article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, it was reported that high-dose postworkout caffeine supplementation combined with the ingestion of fast sugars (like dextrose) resulted in 66 percent greater glycogen repletion than when taking carbs alone. In fact, study authors concluded that the augmented rate of glycogen replenishment they observed was the highest ever reported in humans under normal physiological conditions. Throughout a four-hour recovery period, subjects who ingested caffeine with carbohydrate had much higher levels of insulin and blood glucose, a potent signal for anabolic drive. Those who opt for this approach may want to temper their caffeine ingestion preworkout and at other times of the day.
CAFFEINE DECREASES PAIN
In an article published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers from the University of Rhode Island reported that athletes who took caffeine before resistance training experienced significant and immediate reductions in postworkout pain. Subjects also enjoyed robust decreases in delayed-onset muscle soreness days after training. Along similar lines, in a recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study from the University of Georgia, caffeine ingestion (approximately 300 milligrams) before maximal voluntary isometric contraction was found to reduce muscular pain intensity by almost 50 percent.
Dramatic decreases in muscular pain are generally thought to be due to caffeine’s ability to block adenosine receptors in the brain and spinal cord that are involved in pain processing and perception. To put this in perspective, one study concluded that the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory and analgesic drug Naproxen produced only a 30 percent reduction in postworkout muscle soreness.
Based on the scientific evidence, there are a few facts you should know before you decide to take caffeine to enhance your workouts:
1. More is not better. In fact, as with most stimulants, the benefits of caffeine diminish if you take a larger-than-optimal dose. This is called the inverted-U effect.
2. Caffeine is a diuretic that can dehydrate you, so you must increase your water consumption when taking it.
3. Caffeine has a relatively long half-life of six hours. So if you drink a large coffee (with about 200 milligrams of caffeine) at 6 p.m. before you work out, you’ll have 100 milligrams still active in your body at midnight, which can severely affect your sleep cycle. Sleep is something you don’t want to mess with: It’s incredibly important for strength and muscular gains (read: recovery).
4. Caffeine is addictive. Use it in moderation and don’t take it to make up for poor sleep habits.
CAFFEINATING FOR PERFORMANCE
Take 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine one hour before workouts. If you’ve never consumed caffeine before or you have a lower tolerance, start with the lowest dose and work up accordingly. If you exhibit symptoms such as shaking, nervousness, heart palpitations or anxiety, you’ve taken too much. For optimal results, take two equal daily doses of 100 to 300 milligrams each. Take the first dose upon waking and the second dose one hour before training, allowing four to six hours between doses.
THE DUALITY OF CAFFEINE
The CliffsNotes on how this super supp does what it does in the brain and body. In the brain Caffeine rapidly goes to work in the CNS and can be felt within 30 minutes after ingestion. The brain-stimulating effect of caffeine is mainly the result of its adenosine-blocking actions. Normally, adenosine binds to nerve cells in the brain to slow down nerve activity, which makes you mellow. With a dose of caffeine on board, however, adenosine’s actions are blunted and nerve cells become hyperactive. Nerve hyperactivity is an environment that the pituitary perceives as an emergency, which promotes the release of noradrenaline, adrenaline and dopamine, giving the user a feeling of energy, wakefulness and well-being.
In the body Caffeine modifies the actions of several enzymes. One in particular, called phosphodiesterase (PDE), is inhibited by caffeine. In cells, PDE works to break down cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which is a crucial cell-signaling substance called a second messenger. Overall, the blunting of PDE allows cAMP to build up in the body, which intensifies and prolongs the effects of energizing neurotransmitters and hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline.
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