Can A Cup of Coffee Increase Performance?

By Kevin Cann – 

I do not know about you, but I truly love my coffee.  On a given day I consume an average of around four cups and the last cup of the day is just as good as the first one.  I guess it would be safe to say that I am a coffee addict.  One of my cups has a different role than the others.  I always have a cup of coffee right before I work out or participate in sport.

cup of black coffee surrounded by coffee beansI started messing with coffee pre-workout a few years ago.  At this time I was doing my mma training early in the morning.  I cannot eat within 2 hours of training as I tend to get cramps and no one really wants another dude sitting on their stomach when it is filled with eggs and bacon. I needed to figure out a way to have enough energy to train without having to wake up at 3:30 in the morning.  Here is what I came up.

I decided to add in roughly 200g of carbs in my last meal of the day before to maximize glycogen stores as best as I could and to add a cup of coffee in before I began training.  Whether it was a placebo effect or not it worked extremely well for me.  So well that I have continued to do it, even before weightlifting, up to this day.  That is my story with caffeine and it was effective, however that is an n=1 scenario.  What does the research say about caffeine consumption and performance?

The majority of us drink coffee to fight off fatigue, but how does it do that?  One way in which coffee helps us fight that fatigue is through its mimicking of adenosine.  Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for making us drowsy.  By mimicking adenosine, caffeine can actually bind to the same receptors without actually making us drowsy (1).  Adenosine when binded to its receptors it actually slows down nerve activity. This can actually hinder performance.

Caffeine actually increases neuron firing.  It does this by sending a message to stimulate our pituitary gland to start producing cortisol.  Cortisol is our major fight or flight hormone and rises naturally with exercise or participation in sport.  Caffeine can increase performance by just limiting drowsiness and increases neuron firing.  Caffeine may also increase performance through increasing cognitive function.

The majority of studies are pretty much in agreement that caffeine can increase cognitive function.  This is independent of dose.  Whether you dink low, moderate, or high doses of caffeine you will most likely see an improvement in cognitive performance.  However, many of us make New Year’s resolutions and sometimes this resolution is to stop drinking coffee.  Is this a wise choice if we have certain performance standards to meet?

Stopping caffeine, even for one day, may lead to decreases in cognitive performance, thirst, and mood (2).  Caffeine may also increase performance by allowing us to spare more of our stored glycogen (3).  Caffeine may also be a positive supplement post-workout.

Post-workout we r are looking to recover.  One big key in recovery is replenishing the glycogen we lost during physical activity.  Recent research by Dr. Hawley at RMIT University was summarized by stating “Glycogen, the muscle’s primary fuel source during exercise, is replenished more rapidly when athletes ingest both carbohydrate and caffeine following exhaustive exercise, new research shows. Athletes who ingested caffeine with carbohydrate had 66 percent more glycogen in their muscles four hours after finishing intense, glycogen-depleting exercise, compared to when they consumed carbohydrate alone, according to the study” (4).  This can help an athlete recover more quickly and potentially get in some extra quality work in a training week.

There is contradictory research to the studies listed above.  Like anything else you need to try it out and see if it works.  I have had good individual success having caffeine pre-workout.  This did come with a higher carbohydrate diet the day before.  Research shows some positive signs for ingesting caffeine both before a workout or game and also after.  Too much caffeine can limit sleep and increase anxiety symptoms so do be careful of how much you consume.


[1]. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S3-15. doi: 10.3233/JAD-2010-1379.

[2]. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2000 Oct;152(2):167-73.

[3]. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jan;79(1):40-6.

[4]. David J. Pedersen et al. High rates of muscle glycogen resynthesis after exhaustive exercise when carbohydrate is co-ingested with caffeine. Journal of Applied Physiology, (in press)