Caffeine is the world's most popular stimulant.
Millions of people drink coffee, energy drinks etc to help get through the day... Whether you're sleep-deprived or simply feeling a little sluggish during the day, most people are familiar with it's effects.
But strategising your caffeine intake can also help you achieve your health & fitness goals...
In fact caffeine has such a significant effect on the human body, the World Anti-Doping Agency once banned high levels of caffeine consumption during the Olympic Games.
Sources of Caffeine
Coffee will probably be the first thing that comes to mind. While this is probably first choice when in need of a mental boost, caffeine is contained in many foods and drinks. Some more obvious than others...
- tea (including green tea)
- energy drinks
- caffeine tablets
- pre-workout supplements
- fat-loss supplements
All of the above are common ways (among others!) of consuming caffeine.
One of the important things to note, is that more often than not, when you eat/drink these products... you will not know how much caffeine you are actually ingesting (more on this below).
Secondly, even if you are told how much caffeine was contained in your morning latte, would this number mean anything to you? Do you know how much caffeine you should be consuming in a day for instance?
What Does Caffeine Actually Do?
You already know how caffeine makes you feel. Depending on your tolerance level (which mostly depends on how much coffee you drink), you may consciously notice any of the following;
- increased alertness
- decreased tiredness
- improved concentration
- greater energy
- difficulty relaxing or sleeping
- increased anxiety and restlessness
While all of the above are fairly easy to observe, caffeine has many other physical effects that you may not be able to "feel";
- reduced perception of pain (potentially useful during exercise)
- improved aerobic performance (better cardio workouts)
- improved high intensity exercise output (you can train 'hard' for longer)
- increased power (you can train 'harder')
- increased fat oxidisation (you become (temporarily) better at burning fat)
- mild increase in metabolic rate (more calories burned)
- improved reaction time (useful in most sports)
- increased heart rate (more stress on the heart - not good over a prolonged period of time)
- short term increase in testosterone levels (might help to build new muscle)
So you can start to see why caffeine has huge potential from a fitness point-of-view...
Using Caffeine To Improve Your Health & Fitness
Assuming that you are able to use caffeine safely (see below), there is clear evidence that it will improve the quality of your workouts. And as a result you can expect to see your results step up a level.
If you can...
1) turn up to your workout feeling more energetic
2) reduce your perception of effort and pain
3) increase blood flow to your working muscles
4) increase the breakdown of fats...
...there is no doubt that you can achieve more during your workouts (obviously you still need to put in the required to exploit the potential advantage). This, in combination with an appropriate nutrition plan, will inevitably improve your end-result - greater fat loss, improved cardio, improved strength, more muscle etc.
As with any supplement/drug, there is an ideal dosage for best results.
Studies show that 3mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight is sufficient to produce an effect.
eg. imagine somebody has a bodyweight of 70kg.
3mg x 70kg= 210mg caffeine.
The problem is... Most people have no idea what 210mg of caffeine looks like, so don't worry if this seems complicated. See below for examples to help estimate the caffiene content of various foods and drinks.
The key to making caffiene work for you... is timing. As with most nutrition tactics, a random approach is not ideal. You will need to plan your caffeine intake around your workouts, while also considering collateral damage, such as your sleep schedule.
Caffeine takes approx' 30-60 minutes to produce it's effects*. But think carefully about what this means and how to make the most of it... Do you want to feel the peak of the benefit at the start of your workout, in the middle, or near the end? This depends on you, and your goals. If your workouts require 40 minutes of intense effort, and you usually notice your effort dropping off after 20 minutes - time your pre-workout caffeine accordingly. If you usually turn up to the gym feeling sluggish, time it so that it kicks in during your warm-up.
* varies from person to person so you will need to experiment.
Also be aware that caffeine's half-life** is 6 hours. This basically means that drinking a double espresso, 6 hours before you intend to go to sleep, is equal to drinking a single espresso as you get into bed (50% of it is still present). Not ideal for a good nights sleep. Think carefully about how important this tactic is, and whether it's worth the negative side effects, if you're training after midday.
** the time it takes for 50% of caffeine to be removed from the body
For most people, the most likely downside to caffeine is the effect on your sleep.
Good sleep is absolutely vital to a number of areas of health & fitness. It would be a huge mistake to think that you are doing yourself a favour by powering through a caffeine fuelled workout, to then get home an hour later and discover that you are going to be awake for half the night.
If you are training in the evening, you are far better off leaving the caffeine alone. This goes for all sources of caffeine. But due to the extreme doses, this is especially relevant if you use pre-workout supplements.
For workouts after 4pm: If you absolutely must take a pre-workout supplement, look into caffeine-free alternatives (but be aware that the substitute stimulant might cause the same or additional problems).
Also, some people say they simply don't get on with caffeine. A heightened sense of anxiety and feeling "jittery" is enough to put some people off. If you're already an anxious person in general, or if your job/lifestyle requires a certain level of calm, consider whether these side effects are worth the possible benefit for you.
How Much Is Too Much?
THE SUGGESTED LIMITS BELOW ARE A GUIDELINE ONLY...
'Average' Healthy Adult: 400mg/day
Pregnant Women: 200mg/day
People with cardiovascular health problems: See your doctor!
One of the problems with describing caffeine doses is that these numbers mean absolutely nothing to most people...
Do you know how many mg of caffeine there are in an average cup of tea for example?
Once you have got an idea of your caffeine intake, it's also worth applying some common sense to the guidelines...
400mg of caffeine is likely to affect somebody with a bodyweight of 80kg very differently to somebody who is only 50kg.
(Don't forget, caffeine tolerance also plays a big part in it's effects - And.. NO! This does NOT mean you should simply have more to increase your tolerance!).
Some people are simply more sensitive to caffeine than others. There may be all sorts of physical, chemical and genetic reasons for this.
But one factor, that you are in control of, is your level of built-up tolerance.
In other words, if you're a regular coffee drinker, you will see less of an effect, compared to the effect if you consumed caffeine rarely.
So, if you really wanted to gain the biggest advantage possible from pre-workout caffeine, you might consider reducing your intake at other times...
If, for example, you wake up and drink 1 coffee first thing, another on the way to work, two or three during your work day, plus another when you get home... you can see how your body would get used to this... Rather than feeling jittery and excitable for 24 hours, your body learns to process the caffeine more efficiently. This is what we mean when we say caffeine tolerance. While this may sound appealing in terms of reducing unwanted side-effects, you will also be reducing the positive effects described above.
Measuring Your Caffeine Intake
Remember, for most people, your daily caffeine should be limited to 400mg...
The tricky part is actually tracking this.
Caffeinated drinks that you buy from the supermarket or from sport supplement companies will be clearly labelled. The information includes the usual nutritional info (look out for excess sugar) and caffeine content in mg (milligrams)...
Tea & coffee is more complicated...
Homemade drinks will vary depending on how you make them and could contain a different amount of caffeine every time (different brewing times, amount of coffee used etc).
The reality is, you just don't know the precise caffeine content unless you have taken very specific measurements (see the list below for an estimate).
The same goes for coffee shops. These vary massively from shop to shop (and they don't actually tell you how much caffeine your getting). Plus you have to worry about the "extras"... sugar, fat, artificial chemicals. It's always worth remembering, coffee shops (especially the big chains), are not particularly interested in your health. They are more focussed on making sure you enjoy your drink enough to come back and buy another one tomorrow. They will add whatever necessary to improve taste and enjoyment, including the "buzz" of the caffeine hit. In other words, they will hapilly add excess sugar and caffeine. While you wont know precisely how much, it's best to assume that it's a lot.
* Optimum Nutrition Amino Energy (Pre-Workout Supplement) - this is 1 serving, as described on the product label.
Important Note: the other items on the list are shown as "per 100ml". NOT per serving. A cup of tea for example, is usually going to contain significantly more than 100ml of tea, and therefore much more than 20mg caffeine.
If you fit into the following:
- you are healthy
- you are an adult
- you are not pregnant
- you would benefit from a boost during your workout
Caffeine could be a useful tool in your health & fitness quest...
Due to the variation of effects in different people, it may be best to experiment with timing and dose to see what works for you... But a strong black coffee (or your chosen alternative) around 30 minutes before you wish to peak, is a good place to start.
Remember, timing is not only crucial with regard to seeing the most effective response, but also to make sure you are not impacting your sleep. ANY caffeine after approx midday is likely to still be floating around in your system when you go to bed. This might do more harm than good.
Finally, if you are solely looking to use caffeine as a workout tool, consider reducing or removing caffeine at other times of the day to reduce your tolerance. Otherwise you are unlikely to see much benefit.
Nutritional supplements are only a part of a much larger toolkit. Without the foundations of an effective training and nutrition plan, these secondary tactics are not going to produce results on their own.
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