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Confused? You’re not alone.
With compiling research in favor of America’s favorite cup o’ joe, it’s probably accurate to assume coffee will eventually become the next superfood. Unfortunately, all the buzz tends to be very confusing for people who aren’t familiar with scientific literature, especially when it comes to implementing more specific strategies like consuming caffeine post-workout.
So, why does coffee get so much love? While virtually none of us need more of a reason to consume it, coffee is thought to be one of the richest sources of antioxidants. These chemical compounds are incredibly beneficial for us because they help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body.
Coffee also contains caffeine, an alkaloid that occurs naturally in the leaves, seeds or fruit of more than 60 plant species. As you’ve most likely experienced firsthand, caffeine is a stimulant drug, which means it speeds up the messages traveling between the brain and the body.
While caffeine has been linked to side effects like a fast heartbeat, dizziness, and sleep issues, caffeine has been shown to have positive effects on sports performance, and might even help protect against cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers.
How Does Caffeine Work?
Caffeine resembles an inhibitory neurotransmitter in our body called adenosine, which promotes sleep by slowing down nerve activity throughout the day. Our body has a number of adenosine receptor sites, and because caffeine looks a lot like adenosine, it binds to these receptor sites and inhibits adenosine from doing its job. As a result, once absorbed – caffeine stimulates cellular function, and there’s an increase in the firing of neurons in the brain.
Caffeine also constricts blood vessels because it blocks adenosine’s ability to open them up, which is why caffeine is associated with pain reduction. Restricting adenosine also helps dopamine do its job more efficiently, potentially resulting in increased happy dances.
So, why does caffeine make us feel superhuman? When the brain senses a rather large build up of adenosine and an increase in the firing of neurons, it makes the assumption that there’s an emergency that needs to be resolved. Since emergencies are kind-of-a-big-deal, the pituitary communicates to the adrenal glands it’s time to initiate the stress response. This is why caffeine is shown to increase cortisol and adrenaline at rest, which are both hormones produced by the adrenal glands that help us during times of stress.
Consuming Caffeine Pre-Workout
There is a plethora of research that shows consuming caffeine pre-workout can improve performance, motivation, and reduce muscle soreness during workouts for both new and long-term caffeine users.
This makes sense, given what we know about how caffeine sort of “pre-loads” the stress-response, and heightens our ability to do awesome things.
Caffeine has also been shown to increase testosterone (an anabolic hormone) during workouts, which is helpful when counterbalancing increased cortisol levels (a catabolic hormone.) Given what we know about testosterone, this little boost might result in improved protein synthesis and muscle growth.
And, despite the fact that it’s widely assumed that coffee is a potent diuretic, research shows that caffeinated beverages like coffee do not have dehydrating effects on the body, nor do they induce electrolyte imbalances. This has been found to be true when looking at overall hydration status, and measuring fluid excretion, as well as excretion concentrations.
Conclusion: Cheers to caffeine pre-workout!
PS. I highly recommend getting your drink on with this brand as the taste is knock-your-socks-off good, and the company takes incredible care of the farmers (and their families) who harvest their coffee beans.
Consuming Caffeine Post-Workout
A quick search in the Google monster will reveal quite a few articles that contradict each other when it comes to consuming caffeine post-workout. Shocking, I know. So, what’s the root of the confusion? Oh, just a couple of studies.
The first study, published in 2008 by The American Physiological Society, showed when seven high-level male athletes ingested carbohydrate with a high dose of caffeine after a workout, it resulted in 66% more glycogen in muscles four hours after the workout in comparison to consuming carbohydrate alone. At first glance, that seems like a major win for muscle recovery.
But, here’s where things don’t add up. This study was actually a single dose experiment, which we know isn’t reliable for conveying how caffeine affects us in the long run. Studies show that our bodies adapt to certain doses of caffeine when exposed regularly, which can occur in as little as 1 to 5 days.
The reality is, the majority of the people consuming caffeine post-workout are regular caffeine consumers. While this doesn’t mean caffeine’s effects are completely eliminated, it does mean that single-dose experiments which utilized incredibly high doses of caffeine (equivalent to 5-6 cups of coffee) is entirely inapplicable for the majority of the population.
The second study, which was done in 2007 at University of Georgia, showed caffeine reduced post-workout pain by 46%. However, because this study only examined perceived effects on nine female college students who were not regular caffeine users and did not engage in regular strength-building training, it doesn’t give me any confidence that this is something the rest of the population should rely on.
Conclusion: Keep reading! (In other words… It’s complicated.)
Why You Should Skip Caffeine Post-Workout
While I don’t believe consuming caffeine post-workout is inherently bad or useless, both of these studies fail to recognition the long-term effects of increased cortisol production. In general, training is a stressor on the body. During workouts, our cortisol levels increase, and consuming caffeine post-workout further stimulates cortisol when we should be prioritizing reducing catabolic hormones and clearing byproducts from the body.
Despite the fact that we can build up a tolerance to caffeine and its ability to stimulate cortisol, studies show that even after regular use, repeated exposure to caffeine throughout the day still results in elevated cortisol levels in the afternoon.18 Since many of us consume caffeine pre-workout, consuming caffeine post-workout is likely to be the second exposure we have during the day. Repeated exposure has already been shown to elevate cortisol levels, even when additional stressors like workouts aren’t a part of the equation.
To add to that, we know women are more sensitive to hormonal changes, specifically when it comes to how the stress response impacts the rest of the endocrine system. As a result, activities that require the adrenals to produce cortisol must be managed carefully when it comes to a woman’s overall health and fertility.
And because the majority of people are exposed to high levels of emotional and physical stress throughout the day, and we all generally suck at managing our stress appropriately, reducing stress – specifically, reducing cortisol levels, seems to be a better priority. Chronically elevated cortisol levels causes inflammation, insulin resistance, cardiovascular issues, immune suppression, and can eventually lead to adrenal and thyroid dysregulation – to name a few.
While these conditions can definitely impact our ability to recover well, build muscle, and maintain leanness, the long-term implications may be far more important to consider – depending on your personal goals and priorities, of course.
What To Do Post-Workout (instead!)
So, what should you be doing post workout to fuel your muscles, clear away cortisol, and become a whole bunch of awesome? In short – eat food, hydrate well, and get some sleep. Studies show consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrates after your workout will help to reduce cortisol level, and provide fuel for muscle protein synthesis.
For further insight on post-workout hydration and fueling, check out my 20 Post-Workout Food Options.
Do you use consume caffeine before or after your workouts? I’d love to hear your experiences below!