A lot of us simply love our morning cup of coffee – once you get into the habit, most will struggle to go even a week without it! The good news is that for athletes, coffee can enhance performance in many ways! So don’t worry about drinking too much coffee, as long as you’re not drinking over 4 cups of coffee daily I wouldn’t be worried.

Many of the performance enhancing benefits of coffee come from a stimulant known as caffeine so all the benefits listed below could alternatively be obtained from other sources of caffeine such as energy drinks and caffeine shots.

7 Ways Coffee Can Enhance Performance

#1 – Increased Mental Alertness

During the day, your body produces a neurotransmitter called adenosine. This builds up over the course of the day and makes us tired at night. When we sleep, adenosine levels decrease and we wake up feeling less tired. Caffeine in coffee acts by binding to sites (receptors) within the body that adenosine would normally bind to, preventing our body from receiving signals (action potentials) from adenosine.

This means that adenosine signals don’t reach our brain, helping to improve alertness. However, if the brain doesn’t get enough adenosine, more binding sites (receptors) will be created within the body. As a result, more caffeine is required to achieve the same effect which is why I would suggest trying to limit the use of caffeine to 3 or 4 days a week so that your body doesn’t build up too much of a tolerance to caffeine.

Increased mental alertness can enhance performance by allowing you to react quicker than usual to any moves or decisions your opponents make in a race or a game. This means that if a runner decides to kick in the last stage of a race, you might be able to react a fraction of a second quicker to unbox yourself from the inner lanes before another runner so that you can follow. As well as this, by increasing your mental alertness you’re more likely to put more effort into racing and will, therefore, run faster.

#2 – Influenced Perception Of Pain And Exhaustion

Caffeine can influence our perception of pain and exhaustion during exercise. By reducing our perception of pain, we think we aren’t working as hard as we could be which allows us to push our bodies closer to the limit – this has shown to be the case in not just aerobic training, but resistance training too.

General research suggests that drinking two cups of coffee prior to working out can reduce post-workout soreness by as much as 50% and lessens the amount of time for muscle recovery. That sounds like a pretty good pre-workout drink to me for a potentially better postworkout recovery. Don’t forget that caffeine can help maintain power for longer during a workout allowing you to train for longer periods of time by increasing resistance to fatigue.

#3 – Increased Power Output

Caffeine has been shown to increase power output in aerobic and anaerobic events, allowing muscles to contract with greater force to achieve greater power.

A study at the University of Coventry found that “caffeine can cause a fibre type-specific increase in muscle power output”, with muscles comprising mostly fast twitch fibres showing a 3% increase in power output, and those of predominantly slow twitch fibres demonstrating a 6% improvement.

Whilst 3% and 6% increase may not sound like much, it can make a big difference in endurance events and the fractions of a second it can make in shorter events from 100m up to 800m can easily mean the difference between winning and coming second.

#4 – Elevated Heart Rate

This is rather speculative but I suspect that caffeine could aid performance by increasing your heart rate prior to training or performing. Part of the reason people warm up before competition is to increase their heart rate in order to prepare your body for intense activity. Whilst I doubt caffeine’s elevation of heart rate will have the same effect as a warm-up, I suspect it could help.

#5 – Increased Ability To Burn Fat

One of the unique abilities of caffeine is how it can help your body to burn fat. Studies suggest caffeine does this by breaking down fats (lipids) within the body to free fatty acids and glycerol which make them easier for the body to use as a source of energy. I suspect you could capitalise on this effect by doing prolonged endurance activity with a low carb diet, or training in a fasted state in the morning since this will help to direct your body to utilise fat as a fuel source rather than sugar or carbohydrates.

#6 – Gives You An Energy Boost

Caffeine prevents your brain from picking up inhibitory signals from the neurotransmitter adenosine so you don’t get tired whilst allowing excitatory neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain to move about freely and so they fire more frequently producing an action potential which your body responds to. The pituitary gland, located in your brain, picks up on this activity and releases hormones which activate the adrenal gland, stimulating the production of adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone.

Adrenaline can give you an energy boost by:

  • Increasing blood pressure (so more nutrients are transported throughout the body)
  • Elevating heart rate
  • Causing the liver to release sugars in the body

#7 – Improves Mood

During and after exercise the body releases extra dopamine. When the dopamine finds its way into the brain, we experience pleasure – it’s this dopamine which can cause the sensation known as a runner’s high. Whilst we always have some dopamine in the brain, it’s the elevated levels of dopamine in the brain which cause pleasure.

Caffeine blocks the neurotransmitter dopamine from leaving the brain and being reabsorbed by our bodies which leads to elevated dopamine levels for a short period of time which can make us feel good. However, this effect can because addictive. If you become used to having higher dopamine levels due to drinking coffee on a regular basis then you will require even more caffeine to achieve the same dopamine effect and improvement in mood.

When To Consume Coffee To Enhance Performance

The optimum time to consume coffee to enhance performance appears to be 30 minutes to 1 hour before a race although drinking a coffee 2 hours (and even longer) before will still have an effect since it takes at least 6 hours for the effects of caffeine to begin to leave your system.

I suggest using coffee if you feel particularly tired before what will be a tough workout, a race or simply to see how you feel training with a caffeine boost. At the same time, I wouldn’t drink coffee too often so you don’t build up a tolerance to the effects of caffeine and so you don’t become reliant on it to sustain you when you’re fatigued throughout your training – that generally calls for more sleep and proper recovery.

If you found this post useful, I’d appreciate it if you could share it with other coffee lovers!