For the past few weeks we have discussed the benefits of water (nature’s beverage) and coconut water (nature’s Gatorade) but what about coffee, one of the most researched substances in sports nutrition?

Coffee and caffeine are controversial subjects in nutrition, even more so in different gym circles. Some experts say that coffee is the elixir of the gods and is so healthy almost everyone should consume a cup or two of the black gold each day. Others say it’s a toxic, dehydrating, stimulating substance that has no place in a healthy diet as it can increase blood pressure and is highly addictive.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme points of view.

Coffee comes in a variety of forms from fresh ground beans to coolers. As a rule of thumb, the healthiest coffee is the one that is closest to the bean. Freshly ground and brewed coffee is the best type of coffee because it doesn’t just contain caffeine, it is also high in polyphenols, antioxidants, and a host of other beneficial chemicals. Freeze-dried and powdered instant coffee still contains plenty of caffeine but is mostly devoid of the other benefits. When it comes to coffee (as with food), fresh is best.

Blended coffee drinks, which contain more fat, sugar, and calories, are not recommended and often provide as much energy as a meal. Most also contain very little caffeine, so will do very little to perk you up before a workout.

Coffee is a proven performance enhancer and was, up until a couple of decades ago, on the Olympic committee’s list of banned substances. From this fact alone, it’s clear that caffeine has a performance-boosting effect.

Some good news…

1) Improved microcirculation – caffeine has been shown to increase the delivery of oxygen to, and the removal of, waste products from your muscles. More oxygen means more energy for exercise and longer, more productive workouts.

2) Lowered perceived pain – exercise can hurt, but caffeine reduces pain perception. This will allow you to exercise longer and harder, especially for those days attempting one repetition maximum.

3) Increased fat cell mobility – the more mobile your fat cells are, the more easily they can be used for energy. Caffeine makes your fat cells more mobile and therefore enhances fat oxidation. This means more energy and faster weight loss.

4) Increased focus – high levels of physical performance are often dependent on high levels of mental focus. Caffeine helps boost mental focus which can help improve determination, concentration, aggression, and movement accuracy even when fatigued.

5) More energy – if you feel tired and sluggish, a jolt of caffeine can often lift you out of that slump so you can have a good workout even if 15 minutes before, you felt like skipping training altogether. This stimulating, energizing effect is achieved without the need for lots of calories and is why most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine.

Some bad news…

Caffeine is one of the most researched substances in sports nutrition and is generally safe for most users, but that doesn’t mean you can abuse it or that everyone should drink lots of coffee. For some, the risks outweigh the benefits. Those risks include:

Insomnia – caffeine is a powerful stimulant that can interfere with sleep. For this reason, do not consume coffee or caffeinated beverages too close to bedtime.

Acute increases in heart rate and blood pressure – as a stimulant, coffee will speed up your heart rate and therefore increase your blood pressure. This should be no problem for most people, but if your blood pressure is already elevated, you may need to avoid excess caffeine.

Diuretic effect – caffeine increases urine output which could increase the risk of dehydration. For this reason, make sure you also consume plenty of water along with your coffee.

Anxiety – if you are very caffeine-sensitive, too much caffeine could leave you feeling anxious and jittery. This can be very uncomfortable and could lead to impaired performance due to loss of fine motor control. Do not consume a large amount of caffeine before activities requiring a high degree of skill or where being nervous could impair performance.

Increased cortisol production – cortisol is a catabolic hormone that is produced during periods of stress that can, a) cause muscle breakdown and b) increase fat gain. For this reason, do not consume too much coffee (3 – 4 cups per day, maximum) and try to limit your consumption to before and not after your workouts.

Takeaway?

Because your body can develop a tolerance to caffeine, it is recommended that you limit coffee consumption to the days you exercise and only consume modest amounts on non-training days. If you find that you must have a coffee to get you up and moving in the morning, you may well be suffering from lack of sleep, and that needs to be addressed at the cause rather than masked with caffeine.

Do you have to drink coffee? Of course not! However, many people find that a coffee or two a day is not just enjoyable but beneficial and healthy too. With a very small number of exceptions, regular coffee consumption is not something to worry about and can be considered part of a healthy, balanced diet.