Pre-workout supplements have been big business for a long time, but could a simple cup of coffee provide you with the perfect workout experience? In this article, we take a look at the benefits and downsides of drinking coffee before a workout.
Drinking Coffee Before a Workout
Coffee has been drunk by humans for almost 3,000 years and is thought to have originated from Ethiopia. Along with tea, coffee is the most popular social drug in the world. The main reason why people drink coffee is to banish fatigue and to help them wake up.
Coffee is almost certainly the most commonly used pre-workout, even if many of the people who take it before a workout don’t consider it as such. Wake up, drink coffee, then head to the gym.
But this is not exactly the same as using coffee as a pre-workout, which involves proper timing and using the correct dosage.
How to Use Coffee as a Pre Workout
The compound in coffee that helps you to perform better is caffeine. This compound is well established as a performance enhancing substance. The dosage required to improve sports performance will depend on your body weight. A 2010 study from the International Society of Sports Nutrition is that dosages of 3-6mg/kg.
For an 80kg man, that’s between 240mg and 480mg of caffeine. To give you an idea of how much that is, a double espresso has around 80mg of caffeine, while a large black coffee contains around 120mg. That means you would need 2-4 large black coffees before your workout to see a significant improvement in performance.
Realistically, nobody is drinking 4 large black coffees before a workout. But 2 coffees isn’t that unrealistic. A 2018 study found that the optimal time for caffeine consumption is 60 minutes before your workout.
Benefits of Coffee Before Workout
Now that you know how much caffeine you require pre-workout, and when to take it, let’s take a look at the benefits of a pre workout coffee.
Benefit #1 Cost
Black coffee is incredibly cheap to brew at home, particularly when you compare it to pre-workout supplements. It’s also easy to prepare and tastes great.
If you forget your pre-workout supplement, then you’re unlikely to be able to find a replacement on your way to the gym. Even if you do, it’s going to cost you. But grabbing a cup of coffee? Very easy. You can even bring a thermos with you to the gym if you want to save some money.
Benefit #2 Low Calorie
A black coffee contains less than 1 calorie per serving. Obviously, if you order a coffee with milk, sugar, and syrup then it won’t be low calorie, but that’s not what you want to be doing before a workout in any case.
Benefit #3 Coffee can Improve Performance
Caffeine has multiple performance benefits when consumed in the optimal dosage. Increased power, reduced fatigue, better focus, and a reduced perception of pain can allow you to train harder and get better results in your workout.
Benefit #4 Coffee can Improve Mood
A lot of research has been done into the impact of caffeine (and therefore coffee) on mood and cognition (brain power). It can lower boredom, improve memory recall, and help to improve concentration. For people who are new to caffeine, a feeling of euphoria may also occur, helping to increase gym motivation and adherence.
Bonus Benefit Coffee can Help Lose Weight
Caffeine, taken in the doses mentioned above, can also help to lose weight. Raising your metabolic rate as well as suppressing appetite. It may help you to burn slightly more calories during your workout. However, caffeine does not need to be taken pre-workout to provide fat-burning effects, hence why we’ve added it as a bonus benefit.
Downsides of Coffee Before Workout
Sadly, it’s not all benefits, there are a number of downsides that you should be aware of before considering coffee as a pre-workout.
Downside #1 Unreliable dosage
Sports nutrition is all about finding the optimal dosage for supplements. We know exactly what dosage is best for performance, and the best option for an athlete is to consume exactly that. But a cup of coffee is not a reliable source of caffeine.
A 1996 study found that how coffee is prepared can lead to wildly different caffeine dosages. A 177ml cup of coffee can have caffeine levels of between 50 and 143mg! If you need 240mg of caffeine, then that could require 5 cups of 50mg coffee, or less than 2 cups of 143mg coffee. Unless you have some way to measure the caffeine content, then you’re just guessing.
This is not much of an issue for low caffeine intake but trying to hit 240mg of caffeine and accidentally consuming twice that could lead to some nasty side effects.
Downside #2 Jitters
Caffeine may have many benefits, but as alluded to in the previous point, it also has side effects. Too much caffeine can lead to The “jitters” is a common term for these. Pre workout supplements that contain caffeine are increasingly using ingredients that can counteract the jitters, but coffee does not provide that option.
Downside #3 Low caffeine
When we were looking at the required caffeine for performance improvements, we found that an 80kg man would require 240mg of caffeine (as a minimum). That is a LOT of coffee. A 100kg man, or a man that required higher doses to see performance enhancement, would need to drink a quite frankly ridiculous amount of coffee.
This is an inefficient way to consume enough caffeine, and as we mentioned earlier, due to inconsistencies in caffeine content, you could get wildly different dosages from each cup.
Downside #4 You Quickly Build a Tolerance
The thing about caffeine is that when you first consume it, you get all of the benefits, but the longer you use it, the less effective it becomes. This is because your body gets used to it and begins to blunt its effectiveness.
After twelve weeks of very high caffeine intake, the benefits will have largely vanished. This is the same with all caffeine products, which is why non-caffeinated pre-workout supplements exist. So that you can cycle between the two.
If you are sticking to coffee, you would need to have a 6 week period where you avoid it completely. Meaning that your workout performance may suffer.
Alternatives to Coffee
Coffee is not the only source of caffeine, and caffeine is not the only supplement ingredient that can improve your workout performance. In this section, we will look at five alternatives to drinking coffee before a workout.
Alternative #1 Caffeine Pills
One of the best alternatives to coffee are caffeine pills such as Pro Plus. There are several benefits. They are very easy to take, have a controlled dosage, and you can easily take enough for 250mg (as an example). There are also no other compounds that may affect caffeine.
Some caffeine pills have l-theanine added, which can remove many of the side effects, such as the caffeine tabs from Awesome Supplements.
Alternative #2 Caffeinated Pre-Workout Supplements
Most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine, you can find ones that mention the exact amount of caffeine per serving, which is very useful. This type of supplement is known as a stim pre workout, and they often contain several other ingredients that can also help to improve performance.
MyProtein.com does an excellent inexpensive pre-workout. One serving contains 150mg of caffeine.
Alternative #3 Beta-Alanine
Beta-Alanine is an amazingly effective pre-workout supplement. It can reduce fatigue, help you train harder (leading to increased muscle gain), and it can also help you to burn more body fat. Increases in endurance and anaerobic performance have also been noted. MyProtein.com does an excellent beta-alanine tablet at very reasonable prices.
Alternative #4 L-Tyrosine
L-Tyrosine is another excellent pre-workout supplement, it can improve focus, reduce stress (very important for building muscle), improve mood, and has been shown to improve endurance performance. You can buy L-Tyrosine in the form of tablets or as an easily mixed powder. Which can then be combined with fruit juice for an excellent pre-workout.
Alternative #5 Non-Stim Pre-Workout Supplements
Non-stim pre-workouts are an excellent alternative to coffee and other caffeine-based pre-workout supplements. They often contain combinations of non-stimulatory ingredients such as beta-alanine and l-tyrosine and work best when you cycle between caffeine for 6-12 weeks, and then your non-stim for 6-12 weeks.
One excellent non-stim supplement is Ghost Pre Workout, which contains high levels of nitric oxide (great for delivering blood to the muscles and creating a pump), and it has a full disclosure label, which I always a good sign.
The truth is that coffee is an inefficient pre-workout source of caffeine and that alternatives such as caffeine pills are much more accurate and effective. However, for most people, who just want to remove some fatigue and feel more wakeful at the gym, 1-2 cups of black coffee should be adequate.
Pre-workout supplements have their uses, as do non-stimulatory pre-workouts. Cycling between the two on a 6-12 week schedule is the best way to get results over the long term.