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Why Coffee Before Workouts Is Even Better Than a Pre-Workout Shake

coffee before workout: woman in a sports outfit and holding a cup of coffee

We've all seen it once or twice: An athlete walks into the gym, holding a coffee to-go cup in one hand and their gym bag in the other. And as they chug down the last few drops of their morning cup of joe, all you can think is, "Are they really going to drink coffee before they work out?"

As jolting as that scene may be, the athlete who appears to have a slight caffeine addiction might be taking intentional steps to improve their athletic performance. In fact, research shows that drinking coffee before workouts may offer a number of health benefits

Below, I explain why drinking a cup of coffee can help improve your workout, the numerous health benefits hiding in your morning mug, and why coffee should replace your pre-workout supplement. 

Please note: The following information is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Before taking new supplements, please consult your physician. 

Why Should You Drink Coffee Before Workouts?

Coffee drinkers, rejoice: Enjoying a morning cup of coffee can improve — not hinder — your workout. Therefore, you don't have to skip your favorite morning ritual before heading to the gym. 

Athletes drinking coffee before working out enjoy a number of health benefits, and (spoiler alert) I happen to be one of them. Coffee is loaded with caffeine, is a natural stimulant, and is an anti-inflammatory food — three things that add up to improved performance in the weight room. Here's a deeper dive into these three benefits and how they impact your exercise routine.

1. Coffee Is Packed With Caffeine 

Let's table the coffee conversation for one moment, and take a hard look at another liquid often consumed prior to exercise: pre-workout supplements. While heavily debated amongst athletes, there is a growing number of individuals who believe pre-workouts hold the secret to lifting heavier, running faster, or jumping higher.

But have you ever stopped to ask what's actually in those pre-workout shakes? Surprise: caffeine.

Caffeine is an ergogenic acid — which is actually the scientific term for performance-enhancing drugs. However, caffeine is a substance that is completely acceptable to use, even in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee. 

Caffeine has been shown to help to improve your athletic output, as it helps increase muscle mass by slowing the onset of fatigue. It can also increase your speed and power output, in competitions lasting as little as 60 seconds or as long as two hours (i.e., from a 400-meter sprint to the marathon). For this reason, it is one of the single most common ingredients in energy drinks, pre-workouts, and other athletic supplements. 

Unfortunately, many pre-workouts make you go a bit overboard on your caffeine intake (and expenses), which can give many athletes the unwanted "jitters" before a workout. For example, C4, a popular pre-workout, contains 150 milligrams of caffeine, whereas a cup of coffee contains 95 milligrams of caffeine. 

2. Coffee Is a Natural Stimulant 

Coffee is a stimulant, which means it naturally increases your heart rate. An increased heart rate, in turn, pumps blood and oxygen faster and more efficiently to your muscles, allowing you to perform better at the gym.

However, stimulants offer another benefit: mental concentration. Coffee is a nootropic, meaning it's a natural way to boost your mental output. As every athlete knows, completing a grueling workout is both a physical and mental exercise — and "mind over matter" will always help you break through your next PR. Stimulants, like coffee, have been shown to improve brain function, giving you laser focus at the gym. 

3. Coffee Is Anti-Inflammatory 

Many of my clients are surprised to learn that black coffee is anti-inflammatory. In fact, it seems that many health articles erroneously tell people to halt their coffee intake in order to decrease inflammation — when this is simply not the case.

As described by Harvard Health, coffee contains polyphenols, which offer a number of health-promoting properties. Polyphenols are both antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, which can help improve your recovery process. In fact, while many athletes turn to coffee as a pre-workout drink, coffee can actually help you after your workout concludes. Reducing inflammation in the body can reduce pain, swelling, muscle soreness, and fatigue, thereby helping you bounce back in your next workout. 

Coffee Benefits: The Health Benefits Hiding in Your Morning Cup

coffee before workout: woman in a sports outfit having coffee while looking at the river

With the exception of water, a cup of black coffee or shot of espresso are two of the healthiest beverages you can consume. A 250 ml (8-ounce) cup of coffee contains just 2.5 calories, with 0 grams of carbs, 0 grams of fat, and 0.3 grams of protein. Therefore, black coffee is usually suitable for virtually any diet and gets the seal of approval from most (if not all) registered dietitians. 

But if you look past the nutrition label, there are a number of health benefits hiding in your morning mug. Below, I share some of my favorite health benefits of coffee — and how each plays into your athletic training. 

1. Coffee Can Boost Your Metabolism

A number of clinical trials show that coffee and caffeine consumption can boost your metabolic rate. Specifically, drinking coffee can boost fat oxidation — helping you to lose weight and tackle fat loss. Within clinical trials, metabolic rate remained in a heightened state for as long as three hours after consumption. 

In fact, coffee has been shown to boost the metabolism in a wide variety of individuals, from individuals with a low BMI to those classified as obese. Meaning, it doesn't matter where you are in your wellness journey — drinking coffee will still help improve your metabolism. 

2. Coffee Helps Promote Fat-Burning 

As you just learned, coffee has been shown to increase fat oxidation, which can help you reach your weight loss goals. However, the impact coffee intake has on body fat extends far beyond a number on the scale. Most importantly, increased fat oxidation helps improve your liver health.

Research shows that drinking coffee can reduce the risk of fatty liver disease (and liver cancer), reduce liver oxidative stress and inflammation, and detoxify free fatty acids. In other words, coffee helps to physically remove the fat from your liver. A healthy liver, in turn, helps to remove toxins and process nutrients in your body.

3. Coffee Reduces Muscle Soreness

If you work out regularly, you know the pain, lethargy, and stiffness that often arrives 24-48 hours post-workout. Delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) is one of the most common side effects of a grueling workout, causing your body to be stiff and sore one to two days following exercise.

Luckily, it appears drinking coffee can help. In a random controlled trial, nine male athletes were told to consume caffeine or a placebo within one hour prior to exercise. Those who consumed caffeine saw a significant decrease in soreness on the second and third days following their workout. In addition, those who consumed caffeine were capable of performing more reps than the placebo group, again showing that coffee consumption can improve athletic performance.

4. Coffee Can Improve Your Heart Health

If you're a fan of cardio — whether you love logging miles on the streets or attending a HIIT class — then you need to have a strong heart. Fortunately, one of the many perks of drinking cups of coffee is a reduced risk of heart disease.

According to the American Heart Association, coffee intake can reduce your risk of heart failure. In fact, drinking coffee can lower your risk of developing heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular disease by as much as 30%. However, AHA does advise against drinking excessive amounts of coffee, suggesting you limit your coffee intake to one to three 8-ounce cups per day. 

5. Coffee Can Decrease Your Risk of Alzheimer's Disease

You already know that drinking coffee offers a number of cognitive benefits. But did you know that drinking regular coffee can decrease your risk of developing Alzheimer's?

Studies show that drinking coffee regularly can decrease your risk of age-related cognitive decline. In fact, coffee drinkers have a decreased risk of developing Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and dementia. 

6. Coffee Could Lower Your Blood Sugar Levels

Do you have chronically high blood sugar? Enjoying a daily cup of coffee could help.

Coffee contains a compound called chlorogenic acid, which is known to help improve blood sugar and insulin levels. Chlorogenic acid, which is also found in green tea, helps to improve your blood glucose levels, which can cause a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.

7. Coffee Can Decrease Your Risk of Cancer

In several studies, coffee has been shown to decrease your risk of cancer. In fact, coffee is associated with a decreased risk of prostate cancer in men, and could lower your chances of getting colorectal cancer by as much as 26%

While scientists are still studying the link between coffee and a decreased cancer risk, many people believe it's due to coffee's antioxidant properties. Specifically, coffee contains caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress, free radicals, and inflammation. 

Are There Any Risks To Drinking Coffee Before Workouts?

I am a strong advocate of drinking coffee prior to workouts to improve exercise performance. With that being said, there are several risks and side effects you should know about:

  • Elevated blood pressure: While we're not sure why, research shows that coffee can cause short-term elevations in blood pressure. In addition, individuals who drink coffee daily are more likely to have elevated blood pressure than those who do not.
  • Heartburn: While uncommon, some individuals experience heartburn and indigestion when drinking coffee. If you fall under this category, I recommend you halt your coffee intake within two hours of your workout.
  • Insomnia: Obviously, increased energy levels is one of the main benefits of caffeine consumption — that is, unless you work out at night. If you work out in the evenings, I recommend drinking decaffeinated coffee instead, so it doesn't negatively impact your sleep hygiene
  • Stomach upset: I am including this note for those of you who drink coffee with heavy cream or added sweeteners, which can be difficult on your stomach. Dairy can be difficult to digest, particularly when exercising — therefore, I only recommend drinking black coffee prior to a workout.

When Should You Drink Coffee Before Workouts?

woman drinking coffee while walking

Coffee is quickly absorbed into the stomach lining. Typically, you can drink an 8-ounce cup (250 ml) of caffeinated coffee and your body will absorb it in 15-45 minutes. However, coffee will offer the most benefits — both mental and physical — between 30-75 minutes.

Therefore, I recommend athletes drink coffee within one hour prior to exercise (so perhaps don't be drinking from a Starbucks cup right when you walk into the gym). If you experience stomach upset, try to push your coffee ingestion to 75-90 minutes beforehand (technically, coffee continues to stimulate the body within three hours after your morning cup). 

If you work out at night, you may have to limit your coffee intake. Therefore, you can either switch to decaf (which still has traces of caffeine), or limit yourself to half a cup of coffee.

What's the Best Way To Prepare and Consume Coffee?

The best way to consume coffee is to take it black — no added dairy, sweeteners, or sugar. Looking for different ways to enjoy coffee? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • French press: If you live alone, a French press is an easy way to prepare coffee (and you won't waste half a pot). Simply pour the coffee grounds into the base, add boiling water, stir, then wait several minutes before enjoying.
  • Filter coffee: You can make filter coffee through a machine, following instructions on the owner's manual. Otherwise, you can set a slightly damp paper filter over a vessel (like a mason jar) then add coffee grounds to the filter. Pour hot water over the coffee grounds to make your coffee.
  • Italian moka pot: An Italian moka pot is a metal coffee device. You fill the bottom with water and the top funnel with coffee grounds, then place it on the stove to brew.
  • At-home cold brew: Making cold brew is easier than it sounds. Simply combine coffee and water in an air-tight jar, and store overnight. In the morning, you can either filter the coffee grounds and enjoy immediately or store for later use.

Drinking Coffee Can Help Improve Your Exercise Performance

For years, athletes turned to pre-workout supplements in order to boost their athletic performance. In doing so, they completely ignored one of the best pre-workouts nature has to offer — and it's sitting in your kitchen cupboard.

Coffee offers a number of health benefits, helping beginner to competitive athletes improve their performance at the gym. Coffee helps boost your metabolism, burn fat, improve focus and mental clarity, decrease your risk of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and even improve your heart health. In addition, coffee is both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce free radicals in the body and decreasing your recovery time. 

If you're interested in sports nutrition, and are looking for supplement recommendations to boost performance, join my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. Combining cardio and strength workouts, nutrition plans, and recovery techniques, it's the well-rounded approach to improve your fitness levels. Plus, at the premium membership you get monthly calls with me to discuss all of your supplement needs.

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