With beverages like coffee, soda, energy drinks, and tea in nearly every kitchen and convenience store around the world, caffeine has become a staple of people’s everyday lives. Yet while most people sip on caffeinated beverages to keep them alert throughout the day, athletes have long relied on caffeine to perform and focus during training and competition. If you’re interested in using caffeine to boost your own training, you’ve probably wondered whether certain forms or sources are better than others. Here’s what we know.
The Background On Caffeine
Most commonly found in coffee beans, caffeine is also naturally-occurring in other plant sources, including various teas and even cacao.
Caffeine is considered a stimulant, meaning it “energizes” us. Other substances, like alcohol, meanwhile, are considered, “depressants.” The dominant theory about how caffeine works suggests that it blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, preventing its drowsiness- and relaxation-inducing effects. Instead, it promotes alertness and energy.
Blocking adenosine can also contribute to higher levels of epinephrine, a.k.a. adrenaline, which causes our heart rate to increase, helps our muscles produce more force, and even increases our metabolism.
Additionally, caffeine has a unique interaction with the heart’s muscle cells that improves its ability to pump blood more forcefully.
The Performance Benefits Of Caffeine
Caffeine is most popularly used to support endurance exercise. Studies consistently show a clear benefit of taking caffeine before training or competing—and that it can improve performance in tests of distance or time to exhaustion.
In addition to its other actions, caffeine also promotes fatty acid oxidation, improving your ability to use fat as fuel. This is a plus, considering fat is the primary fuel source in long-distance, low-to-moderate-intensity exercise.
Read More: 5 Signs You Need A Break From Caffeine?
Caffeine’s alertness benefits also play a role in increasing strength—especially if you’re otherwise feeling fatigued or unmotivated. However, its main role here is probably through increasing muscle activation by blocking that adenosine. This helps us recruit our muscles to perform heavy or powerful lifting.
So What Form of Caffeine is Best?
We know that we can get caffeine from multiple sources—coffee, pills, powders, etc. This leads many a fitness-minded consumer to wonder whether there’s a best form to use before exercise.
The Coffee Conundrum
Initially, studies suggested that getting your caffeine from coffee may not be as effective as getting it in a pure pill or powder form. In the late ’90s, researchers theorized that some of the other bioactive components in coffee interfered with caffeine’s effects. However, studies in the last decade have not been able to replicate those results. This leads us to believe that the difference might not be as big of a deal as we initially thought. Basically, this means that you can reap equal performance benefits from drinking coffee or taking straight caffeine.
Timing Different Types Of Caffeine
Another major question I get asked often is whether you have to time different forms of caffeine before workouts.
A landmark 1998 study looked into this by investigating people’s blood levels of caffeine following four conditions. One group consumed regular coffee, the second drank decaf coffee with a caffeine pill, the third drank water with a caffeine pill, and the fourth took nothing.
The results: Groups one through three all experienced similar increases in blood levels of caffeine. (Of course, levels didn’t increase at all in the placebo group.)
From this, we can conclude that you can time your caffeine similarly, regardless of the form you take. Caffeine seems to peak in the blood from 45 to 90 minutes, so I recommend popping that pill or sipping your java or pre-workout about 30 to 45 minutes before you train for maximum performance benefits.
What About Tea?
Another common source of caffeine is tea—and green tea is particularly popular. However, some people wonder if green tea is actually an effective pre-workout source of caffeine. This is because it also contains the amino acid l-theanine, which promotes relaxation.
We don’t have a ton of information on this combination and how it affects exercise performance. However, studies show that l-theanine can counteract some of caffeine’s potentially negative side effects, like anxiety or jitters. If you’ve considered giving up caffeine because of these effects, give green tea a shot for a potentially smoother rush. Like coffee, caffeine levels from green tea seem to peak at around 45 to 90 minutes, so stick to that same timing.
The Bottom Line
Overall, I don’t think there’s a specific form of caffeine that has more magical effects than others.
My best advice: Stick to whatever’s most convenient for you, whether that’s a pre-workout drink, caffeine pills, or a mug of coffee. Which you choose really depends on your experience and what gets you in the zone. If you love the taste of coffee and it makes you feel more amped to train over a caffeine pill or flavored pre-workout powder, then drink coffee. If you feel a bit jittery after coffee or pre-workout, drink green tea.
Double-check with your physician about your caffeine consumption if you have any pre-existing conditions, and take a few days off every week (or a week off every month) to maintain sensitivity.
References & Further Reading
- Cardiovascular Research: “Competition and redistribution among calcium transport systems in rabbit cardiac myocytes.”
- Circulation Research: “Calcium and excitation-contraction coupling in the heart.”
- The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: “Effect of caffeine on sport-specific endurance performance: a systematic review.”
- Journal of Applied Physiology: “Metabolic and exercise endurance effects of coffee and caffeine ingestion.”
- Journal of Applied Physiology: “Metabolic, catecholamine, and exercise performance responses to various doses of caffeine.”
- Sports Medicine: “Caffeine and exercise.”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Effects of caffeine intake on muscle strength and power: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”
- PloS One: “The metabolic and performance effects of caffeine compared to coffee during endurance exercise.”
- PLoS One: “Time course of tolerance to the performance benefits of caffeine.”
- Nutritional Neuroscience: “The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood.”
- European Journal of Nutrition: “Time course of tolerance to adverse effects associated with the ingestion of a moderate dose of caffeine.”
- Nutrition Journal: “Acute caffeine ingestion reduces insulin sensitivity in healthy subjects: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.