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Caffeine is the most widely ingested psychoactive drug in the world. From morning lattes and dark chocolate, to pre-workout bars and post-workout drinks, caffeine saturates nutrition labels. But, despite its bad rap, it may actually help you perform better as you chase your fitness goals, studies show.
Of course, we talk a lot about avoiding caffeine overdose, for good reason. (Think: gut rot, heart palpitations, jitters and increased anxiety, all of which negatively impact performance.) BUT, like all things in moderation, ingesting a little caffeine can go a long to improve endurance capacity, weightlifting output and simple reaction time, among other crucial variables.
A recent report published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found lower caffeine doses don’t impact whole-body responses to exercise, and do boost the athlete’s alertness and mood during and after exercise. Plus, if kept within reason, caffeine is associated with few, if any, side effects.
In addition, caffeine acts as a disease-fighting antioxidant, and may also reduce risk of type 2 diabetes and a few cancers, like those of the colon and liver, says Jim White, RD, ACSM EX-P, and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.
The Proper Daily Dose
The trick to avoid overdoing it, he says, is to be mindful of the secret sources of caffeine we consume, but forget to count—like dark chocolate (a 3.5 oz bar has 85 mgs) or energy drinks and pre-workout snacks (which can have upward of 300-400 mgs). “We have to look at where we’re sourcing our caffeine from in the bigger picture of our daily nutrition plan.”
Caffeine Intake on Low-Carb Diets & Intermittent Fasting
Since intermittent fasting (eating for eight hours, followed by 16 hours of food abstinence) is hot right now, White says, ingesting coffee in the morning about 30 to 45 minutes before exercise can give you mental alertness and acuity to better your workout. “If breakfast is off the table for fasting purposes, this would be a good opportunity to give your body the energy boost it needs by drinking a non-sugary caffeine drink,” he says. “However, I’d recommend drinking coffee with breakfast just to avoid any unwanted GI tract issues, like going to the bathroom unexpectedly.”
Similarly, many athletes eat low-carbohydrate diets to lose weight and gain muscle. If this is you, caffeine could help you score quick energy you’d typically get from a carb-heavy snack to support your workouts naturally, says White.
3 Tips to Integrate Caffeine Into Your OCR Nutrition Plan—In a Smart Way
If used as a training and racing tool, caffeine can be a helpful game changer to smoke your PRs and feel at your best. Here’s White’s best advice to keep your caffeine consumption in check and make it work for you, as opposed to against you.
1. Experiment with Caffeine, But Don’t Start Something New on Race Day
When it comes to pre-workout nutrition, it’s good to play with different combinations to find the right balance for you. Go with your gut, he says. Whatever tastes and feels good is probably right for you. However, to dodge race-day nutrition mishaps, White recommends to avoid trying anything new before a race or big event. “You don’t want to add new variables to the mix when you already have a plan in place,” he says. “Everyone has a different GI response, so adding new foods or drinks could throw you off your game and mess with your goals.”
2. Stick to Cold Brew Coffee
According to White, darker coffee tends to be lower in caffeine than lighter blends. “This is kind of surprising—most people think lighter coffee has less caffeine, but darker options are typically better,” says White. “I only drink cold brewed coffee.” Why? Because during the cold-brew process, beans are soaked to release caffeine, as opposed to heated (during a roasting process). This leads to a less acidic product overall. “It’s much easier on the lining of your stomach overtime, and can reduce stomach discomfort from highly acidic blends,” he says.
Dying to switch to a cold brew? Snag a sample from our partner, RISE Brewing Co.—all organic, sustainably sourced and delivered straight to your door (hassle-and-headache free). Plus, each Rise Coffee cold brew comes in at around 180 mg of caffeine, which keeps you well within healthy recommended daily limits.
3. Don’t Overdo It, Even if You Think You Need It
White had one client who was chugging fitness drinks loaded with caffeine, on top of two americanos per day, operating under the assumption that he needed more to get the desired energy effect. “He was ingesting around 800-1,000 mgs of caffeine per day and overtime, this caused major physical issues and anxiety,” says White. “Once we dialed it back to a normal level, his performance greatly improved and he felt better overall.” Though each athlete’s body responds differently to various doses of caffeine, it’s safe to say: less is more. Always.
“You have to ease into your caffeine consumption to find the right balance for you,” says White. “Especially, if you’ve never taken in a lot of caffeine or have a sensitive central nervous system. How your body will respond depends on many factors. Athletes with high blood pressure, or any type of arrhythmias or heart conditions should be extra careful and consult their doctors and certified nutritionists.”