Old habits die hard.
But just because I don’t currently ingest caffeine before I workout (who has extra time when your favorite class starts before 6 am?) doesn’t mean I won’t start, especially after digging into the research.
How caffeine affects your workouts
Anyone who drinks coffee knows it’s a quick-fix when tiredness hits. For gym-goers to elite athletes, a shot of caffeine before physical effort can improve performance, making it easier to go harder with less pain and fatigue. Without energy, exercise feels harder, and that’s if you make it to the gym at all. (I’m a lot less motivated when it feels difficult just to roll out of bed.)
Are caffeine supplements safe?
The supplement industry has increased in popularity in recent years, with some estimates suggesting the pre-workout category is the second most commonly consumed behind multivitamins. Designed specifically to be taken immediately before exercise, the idea is that using pre-workout, you can train harder and longer. Different supplement brands and formulas contain different ingredients, but it’s common for most to contain caffeine, “one of the best, most-studied supplements on the market.”
In any form (green tea extract, coffee beans, yerba mate, or caffeine anhydrous), caffeine’s energizing effect can increase alertness and arousal and decrease one’s rate of perceived exertion. It’s a performance-enhancing aid that’s an easy, effective addition to one’s gym routine.
While there are caffeine-free pre-workout formulas, typically marketed as ‘non-stim’, the dietary supplement industry as a whole is unregulated by the FDA, making coffee, for me, most appealing.
Tips for using caffeine before a workout
Whether you already use caffeine pre-workout, or you want to start, keep in mind:
- It takes some time to feel the effects of caffeine — 15 minutes, at least, and closer to an hour to reach its peak.
- There’s no magic dose. The amount of caffeine required to provide athletic benefits may vary person to person, and anyone with caffeine sensitivity would be best to start with a small dose to see how it’s tolerated.
- It’s not actually caffeine that powers your workout but calories. “Scientifically speaking, calories are energy units that the body uses like a car uses gasoline”, Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, who is COO of ARENA Innovation Corp and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. “Calories, of course, come from carbohydrates, protein, and fats in food. Immediately ahead of a workout, you’ll want to stick primarily to easily-digestible carbohydrates like toast, pretzels, or crackers to help to top off glycogen stores.”
How to increase your energy without caffeine
If you prefer exercise sans stimulants and supplements, there are alternatives. So often, our energy tanks simply because we’re not drinking enough water. “Many people who are feeling flat in the middle of their workout routines are just dehydrated,” says Matheny. And if you’re an early bird, like me, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Sounds too simple, I know, but we can’t sacrifice one healthy thing for another.
The bottom line: The more tired you feel, the harder exercise can be, but consuming caffeine pre-workout isn’t a prerequisite as much as its a personal preference. With or without caffeine, simply moving is a sure-fire way in and of itself to get your heart pumping and blood flowing, increasing energy levels in real time.