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Is coffee before exercise good for you?

Fitness enthusiasts often claim that coffee improves their performance. But is that true? Lounge evaluates the science behind coffee

How much coffee is good for you?
How much coffee is good for you? (Unsplash/Jessica Lewis)

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As if anyone ever needed to justify their love for coffee, this is it: coffee helps you live longer, improves athletic performance and has a host of health benefits. 

Since coffee is one of the most popular pre-workout fuels widely used by runners, cyclists, endurance athletes, sportsmen and gym enthusiasts, let’s start with whether it improves athletic performance. Apart from the anecdotal accounts of psychological benefits that active people say they derive from their pre-workout coffee, there is actual scientific evidence that coffee can positively affect performance.

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A study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism in December 2020 found that coffee with 3 mg/kg of caffeine improved performance during a 5-km time-trial for amateur and recreational cyclists. The researchers further found that caffeine attenuates pain sensation and perceived exertion, which tends to make one feel that one is performing better. They also noted that caffeine tends to improve mood and cognitive performance among those who drink less compared to those who drink more. 

The timing of drinking coffee also plays a big role in determining whether you can benefit from it during your workout. And the impact of coffee is different for men and women. A study published in the Progress In Neuro-Psychopharmacology And Biological Psychiatry journal in 2008 found that the effects of coffee caffeine has a greater effect on men than women, and that these effects kick in within 10 minutes. Researchers also found a small improvement in activity levels among both men and women even with decaf coffee. 

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Among the beneficial effects of coffee is lower reaction time to moving targets. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo in 2021 found that apart from increased alertness, caffeine from coffee improved reaction times of the participants involved in the study. Generally speaking, coffee improves mood, and there is scientific data to prove that this is true. A study conducted in Finland and published in Cambridge University’s Public Health Nutrition journal found that “coffee consumption may decrease the risk of depression, whereas no association was found for tea and caffeine intake.” 

So when does coffee stops being good for you and starts causing you harm? A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 found that three to four cups a day are more likely to benefit health than harm and those who drink this amount saw the largest risk reduction for various health outcomes.  Dr. Pankaj Puri, director of gastroenterology and hepatobiliary sciences at Fortis Escorts Hospital in New Delhi, admits there is a lot of interest in the overall beneficial effects of coffee consumption in recent times. “The beneficial effects of coffee are reported for more than two cups a day. Moreover, incremental beneficial effects have been reported up to 4 to 6 cups of coffee a day,” he says. 

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Coffee is a complex beverage containing over a hundred compounds. The protective effects could be due to compounds other than caffeine, says Puri, adding that the type of bean and the way it is prepared also make a difference. “Composition of coffee is influenced by the type of coffee bean and preparation. Espresso is prepared using high pressure boiling water through a column of coffee, it could modify several of its compounds. Infusion or filtration in regular coffee better preserves chlorogenic acids as compared to espresso. The beneficial effect is more with regular coffee as compared to espresso coffee.” 

Despite the benefits of coffee, you need to bear in mind the fact that coffee does have negative side effects including anxiety, restlessness, headaches and insomnia and potential risk of dependence. Everything should be consumed in moderation, advises Dr. Vikas Deswal, senior consultant for internal medicine at Medanta Hospital in Gurugram. “When you drink a large amount of coffee your heart rate tends to increase, your blood pressure goes up, you become restless, your anxiety goes up and you feel breathless.”

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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