I tend to work out early in the morning, well before I consume much of anything. If I’m doing cardio, I stick to water. Too much coffee too early in the day can have a nearly de-corporealizing effect on me, making me feel as if I’m a head without a host anchoring it. And that’s no fun.
Abstention from pre-workout caffeine has long extended extends to professional athletes, too—though for a very different reason. They're often advised to quit caffeine for days before a given event. This dormancy period without caffeine, common knowledge suggests, will result in caffeine's effects and benefits crescendoing just around performance time.
But a recent study out of the University of São Paulo, published in last month's Journal of Applied Physiology, has recommended that consuming one cup of coffee an hour before a workout may provide the exact performative relief that many of us crave from a workout, even if you haven't spent the past week coffee-free. Physiology instructor Bruno Gualano segmented a group of 40 competitive male cyclists into three groups dictated by how much caffeine, be it soda, tea, coffee, or Red Bull, they drank routinely. The first had less than a coffee cup a day, the next drank roughly two, and the third, three or more cups.
Each group's respondents, after fasting for the day, were asked to arrive to the lab on three separate occasions. During the first, they were fed a caffeine pill of 400 milligrams (the rough equivalent of four coffee cups) an hour before they began their ride; the second time, a placebo; and the third time around, they swallowed nothing at all. They performed timed trials, cycling strenuously until burning 450 calories.
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Gualano, himself an avid cyclist, found that his respondents cycled roughly 3.3% faster after having that caffeine pill than without, and 2.2% faster after swallowing the placebo. What’s more is that there was little to no performative variance between cyclists used to consuming four or more cups a day than those who barely drank any coffee at all. "No matter the habitual caffeine intake in the diet, acute caffeine supplementation can improve performance,” Dr. Gualano toldThe New York Times.
There are obvious limits to this study. The most glaring is that Gualano’s curiosity extended to a very select demographic—young, fit men who literally ride bikes for a living—and I'm afraid we can't all be virile competitive cyclists with gams of steel. Given this constraint, Gualano gleaned that a coffee cup an hour before a workout (not four, as is the equivalent of those pills) may be best for those of us non-professional athletes who'd simply like to feel satisfied after subjecting our bodies to strain.
Do you down a cup of coffee before you work out? Two? Three? Seven? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.