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Does drinking coffee before a workout actually help?

More and more people are turning to coffee as a pre-workout drink. But does it work? Lounge speaks to nutrition experts to find out

It's important to know the effects that caffeine has on the human body. (Photo: Istockphoto)
It's important to know the effects that caffeine has on the human body. (Photo: Istockphoto)

How many times have you seen your gym-buddy walking in for her workout with a fancy coffee sipper? If the answer is “everyday”, then she’s not alone. Coffee has increasingly bec quite a popular beverage to have before a workout. But does it actually help you get a better workout, a faster run, a stronger session? Or is it just a fad?

What does a pre-workout supplement do? Essentially, it releases certain hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine in the body. These are naturally produced when your body is in fight-or-flight mode, but otherwise, you need to find a different way for our body to produce these hormones. Enter caffeine.

If you go to any health supplement store, you will find at least 10 different types of pre-workout supplements. If you look at the nutrition label, you will notice that one of the main ingredients in each of these is caffeine, sometimes going as high as 200mg per scoop. If you take two scoops of this, you are already at your recommended daily caffeine intake. So coffee, for most, is a good alternative option before a workout. But is coffee a healthier alternative to pr-workout supplements?

“Personally, I almost never prescribe pre-workouts to clients. One, because they contain a lot of other additives such as artificial sweeteners which wreck havoc on the gut microbiome and sharpen the pleasure centres in the brain. Two, because they typically contain fairly high doses of caffeine. Caffeine has effects on the gastrointestinal tract. In large amounts it can also induce stomach upset or acid reflux,” says Kripa Jalan, nutrition consultant at Burgers to Beasts, a nutrition services provider. “Plus, if you can’t pronounce a name/don’t cook with the ingredient—don’t buy it. That’s the case for several of the additives. So, I’d recommend coffee over a pre-workout. It’s also far more economical,” she adds.

But caffeine also impacts the heart rate. How does this affect a regular coffee drinker? According to Sandhya Pandey, chief clinical nutritionist, Fortis Memorial Research Institute Gurgaon, if the goal is a regular 60-minute workout, then ergogenic aids (anything that enhances performance) are not required. “But the worry of toxicity happens when you go beyond a particular dosage. The issue is coffee works as a stimulant and has an impact on heart rhythm, so you should not be taking it towards the evening, which can impact your sleep. Other than that, I would be concerned about people who are hypertensive or have heart issues.”

The caffeine in a cup of coffee is also a mild diuretic, which makes the body excrete more liquid. However, coffee intake, when done in limited amounts, does not lead to dehydration. This makes it safe to consume before a run or a particularly long workout session where one might sweat a lot. “Regardless, it’s essential to drink adequate water and not wait for your body to signal thirst to hydrate. Adequate hydration is especially important for performance events—because even a 1% drop can impact cognitive and physical performance,” says Jalan.

One important thing to remember is that the time it takes for the “caffeine kick” from your coffee to set in. A study headed by researchers from the University of Barcelona shows that the caffeine starts to take effect 10 minutes after a cup of coffee is consumed. According to Ana Adan, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Psychiatry and Clinical Psychobiology Department of the University of Barcelona, “45 minutes is the time needed for maximum caffeine concentration to be reached in the blood, but levels reach half this concentration after just a few minutes.” This effect can generally last between two to three hours. So the best time to have a coffee would be about 30-40 minutes before you hit the gym.

One mistake a lot of people (athletes and otherwise) make is to try to balance out a sleepless night with coffee. Coffee is not a substitute for rest and should never be treated as such. “When our sleep is disturbed, or deficient, it can lead to an increase in the resting heart rate (HR), and we notice that our HR may be a tad higher during a relatively easy run. When coffee is added to the mix in this context, it can be a double-edged sword. First, it may lead to a further increase in HR during the easy run, and second, it may further deteriorate our sleep cycle, creating a vicious circle,” says Amit Mehta, nutritionist and founder-CEO of UnivedSports. “Neglecting sleep and relying on coffee is never good. Sleeping enough and using coffee (caffeine) correctly, can be very beneficial to athletes,” he says.

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