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Why caffeine before a workout is a good idea

by Mark Miller 8 min read

Why caffeine before a workout is a good idea

Coffee is such a great performance enhancer it was once limited in Olympic athletes. (CoffeeChemisty.com image)

Caffeine can boost athletic stamina and speed so much that the International Olympic Committee once limited how much of it Olympic athletes could take. Caffeine was categorized as a performance-enhancing substance.

The regular athlete might not be able to run a marathon in 2:02.57 like Dennis Kimetto, but maybe after an invigorating jolt of java you can run just a little bit quicker and burn some fat in the process. Caffeine can improve performance by 1.5 to 3 percent, recent studies show. And the amount needed to give the boost is no more than that in an 8-ounce cup of coffee or an energy drink or two.

Scientists used to think that to see a difference in their performance, athletes would need large doses of caffeine. But sports medicine specialist and doctor Haemi Choi tells Men’s Health [1] that smaller amounts help with intense, short-term sports activities.

A 1 to 3 percent improvement may not matter to an amateur athlete just playing hoops with friends, but it could make all the difference in a professional or Olympic sport.

Medical News Today reported in 2018 [2]:

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system to reduce fatigue and drowsiness. It may also benefit exercise performance; research has shown that it can improve endurance and increase muscular strength.

And The Atlantic reported [3] on a 2012 New York City Triathlon runner-up, Sarah Piampiano, who, far from a caffeine-dependent person, takes it sparingly: before big races. The Atlantic reported:

Piampiano is not a caffeine addict. She has maybe two cups of coffee in a year, because she is sensitive to its effects. It makes her jittery. But on race day, she uses it thoughtfully and systematically to optimize her performance. She uses energy gels made by Clif Bar, one of her sponsors, to integrate calories and caffeine into her race-day nutrition plan. Before the race, she usually takes a gel with 50 milligrams of caffeine. Then on the biking leg, she takes 50 milligrams per hour. And that increases later in the race.

Both the Olympics and the U.S. NCAA have lifted their bans on caffeine. The stimulant used to be classified as a performance-enhancing substance. It does boost performance, studies are showing, but not in the same way steroids or other synthetic substances do.

Evidence is piling up that caffeine can help athletes.

ScienceDaily reported in 2010 on a study by a team of researchers from the United Kingdom that showed that high doses of caffeine can boost endurance and muscle strength in sub-maximal activities in mice. Sub-maximal, which means the muscles are not pushed to their limit, includes sprinting and weight-lifting.

The researchers said results in humans would likely closely mimic the mice.

“A very high dosage of caffeine, most likely achieved via tablets, powder or a concentrated liquid, is feasible and might prove attractive to a number of athletes wishing to improve their athletic performance,” lead researcher Rob Jamestold ScienceDaily [4]. “A small increase in performance via caffeine could mean the difference between a gold medal in the Olympics and an also-ran.”

Another study, this one a study of studies or a meta-study, looked at 21 other researchers' studies of caffeine on timed athletic performance. The study's authors are a researcher from the University of Arkansas, Matthew Ganio, and one from the University of Connecticut, Evan Johnson.

The Atlantic article states:

Ganio is soft-spoken but unequivocal about caffeine’s benefits for athletes. In 2009, Ganio and his colleagues published a systematic review of 21 studies on caffeine in timed performance. Most of the researchers looked at subjects cycling, but some also studied running, rowing, and cross-country skiing, and most of the tests were in the 15-minute to two-hour range. Looking across all the results, Ganio found consistent improvements in performance.

The right dose

 Taking the correct dose for an athlete is important. Ganio told The Atlantic:

Ganio said it is important to take the right dose, which shakes out to about three to six milligrams per kilogram of body mass. That is a lot of caffeine. An 80-kilo (176-pound) athlete taking six milligrams per kilogram would need 480 milligrams of caffeine.

That's nearly a half gram, which sounds like a lot, but consider that there are 28 grams per ounce. You would need about five cups of coffee, or 12 40-mg Viter Energy Mints [5]. The mints might be the way to go for an endurance athlete because you can take them along the way. For a four-hour marathon, you would take two to three per hour.


The U.S. FDA cautions the casual partaker of caffeine to limit intake to three to five 8-ounce cups per day, which comes to about 300 mg, as we reported in the blog titled "Coffee is good for you" [7].

That amount per day "can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns." There is "strong and consistent evidence showing that, in healthy adults, moderate coffee consumption is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases (e.g. cancer) or premature death."

On the contrary. According to what we reported in 2018 on a study of caffeine in humans by the University of Southern California [8]:

Some studies show a link between healthy benefits of caffeine, but people also derive benefits from decaffeinated coffee, too, the USC study shows.

Not only did the study find no risk of early death from drinking coffee, Today says it found:

Overall, people who drank two to three cups of coffee a day had an 18 percent lower risk of dying of all causes than people who skipped coffee. In particular, coffee drinkers had a reduced risk of death from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, kidney and respiratory disease.

Athletes can benefit from caffeine, the Nestle Nurtition Institute says in this YouTube video.

Benefits are not just for athletics

As we reported in the Viter Energy Blog [9], caffeine is for more than just athletic performance. Caffeine, researchers say:

  • Reduces risk of heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis
  • Boosts semen production
  • Invigorates
  • Enhances memory
  • Alleviates fatigue
  • Reduces the risk of kidney stones
  • Helps alleviate migraine headaches 
  • Enhances the effect of over-the-counter painkillers
  • Enhances athletic performance

And many of the products that include caffeine taste great, including Viter Energy Mints [10]. The caffeine in coffee is slightly addictive, but it is not a dangerous, life-destroying drug like opiates or meth.

Earlier Oympic ban

Caffeine was placed on the list of banned or regulated Olympic substances in 1972 after a Mongolian athlete had highly elevated levels of it in his blood. It was later removed from the list.

The list has substances that are believed to unfairly improve performance and give an edge to athletes. It includes steroids, testosterone, androstenediol, cocaine, amphetamines and DHEA.

CoffeeChemistry.com explains [11] the science of how caffeine enhances performance and burns fat:

According to researchers, caffeine increases the migration of reserved fats into the bloodstream thereby making them available during strenuous exercise and leaving a higher level of reserved glycogen in the muscles/liver. As a result the athlete ‘burn’ fat during a significant portion of their competition while providing them with a quick and readily available source of energy (in the form of a sugar: glycogen) that they can quickly make use of—say during the last 10 seconds of a race. Think of it as the “nitrous oxide” commonly used in drag racing and the extra boost in horsepower during the last moments of a race.

The Olympic movement has limited caffeine in various amounts over the years, from 12 to 15 micrograms per liter of urine. That equals about 1,000 mg taken in the space of about an hour. You would have to drink around six to eight 8- to 12-ounce cups of coffee.

“But because caffeine’s metabolism varies significantly from person to person based on gender, weight, etc.—caffeine concentrations in the urine can still remain elevated even if the coffee was consumed within a 2-3 hour period,” saysCoffeeChemistry.

The World Anti-Doping Agency bans chemicals that boost performance, place athletes’ health at risk, and violate the spirit of sport.

NCAA also lifted its ban

The NCAA, the body that oversees collegiate athletics in the United States, no longer bans caffeine.

The blog Shasta Ortho reports [12]:

The NCAA declared that athletes cannot have a caffeine concentration higher than 15 micrograms per milliliter (mcg/ml) in their body.   Doses of 3-6 mg/kg, which do not produce urine concentrations that would result in disqualification, have been found to be ergogenic (performance enhancing). One cup of regular coffee contains 100 mg of caffeine and a can of Red Bull contains 115 mg of caffeine, while the equivalence in urine within two to three hours is 1.50 mgc/mL and 1.73 mgc/mL respectively.

In a healthy and average sized man, the NCAA limit may be reached by consuming five regular cups of coffee a few hours before drug testing. There may be variations of caffeine content in each product as well as metabolic differences unique to each athlete. Therefore, the safest action is to avoid consuming caffeine-containing products during athletic events.

The good news for non-professional or non-Olympic athletes—just regular people going to the gym or playing soccer or hoops, is that newer research has shown normal amounts of caffeine help performance.

Athletes can train for a longer time at a greater output when they’re under the influence of caffeine,says Men’s Fitness [13], quoting the journal Sport Medicine.

From couch potato to champ

Don’t get visions of being 45 years old and out of shape and then starting a coffee regimen and becoming the Olympic champion in the 1,500 meter. That said, though, in addition to helping burn that roll of fat if you work out, caffeine can act as an appetite suppressant.

Another study, reported in the British Journal of Sports, found that people who ingested caffeine finished their 1,500-meter run 4.2 seconds faster on average than non-caffeinated people. If they ran the distance, which is about .9 of a mile, in 6 minutes they shaved 1.5 percent off their time.

Photo of athlete

Is caffeine before a workout a good idea?

But the benefits of caffeine are not just physical. Caffeine can enhance alertness and concentration, which may help you stay focused on the workout and keep it productive. In other words, it might keep you from slacking off in the gym.

Another benefit is that caffeine decreases muscle fatigue, so you can do more reps at higher weight when lifting.

Also, coffee in particular contains a lot of anti-oxidants, which neutralize substances that damage the body, so it may help fight disease. Frequent bouts of illness can keep an athlete off the track, field or out of the gym.

Take care that you don’t ingest too much caffeine. Viter Life explored how much caffeine is safe for healthy adults in this blog [14]. Too much of it may cause insomnia, nervousness, muscle tremors and stomach upset.

Excess caffeine can also cause irritability, headaches restlessness, excessive urination and fast heartbeat. These side effects come with what MayoClinic.org calls heavy caffeine use of 500 to 600 milligrams per day. But how much caffeine is safe? About 300 to 400 milligrams of caffeine are right for an adult, about 100 mg for adolescents and none for children.

That Viter Life blog posting also gives caffeine amounts for various products that contain it, including tea, chocolate, energy drinks and medications.


So, is having caffeine before working out a good idea? Yes. And keep in mind that if you are doing an hours-long athletic event, you may not have the wherewithal to freshen your breath. Viter Energy Mints' Extra-Strength Peppermint [15] will refresh you in a big hurry.


[1] http://www.menshealth.com/health/caffeine-and-olympics
[2] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320697
[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/how-athletes-strategically-use-caffeine/283758/
[4] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100629193123.htm
[5] https://amzn.to/3grq8iC
[6] https://www.goviter.com/blogs/viter-energy-blog/sublingual-viter-energy-mints-deliver-quick-kick-bloodstream
[7] and [8] https://www.goviter.com/blogs/viter-energy-blog/coffee-is-good-for-you
[9] https://www.goviter.com/blogs/viter-energy-blog/evidence-shows-coffee-healthy-for-you
[10] https://www.goviter.com/collections/viter-energy-mints
[11] https://www.coffeechemistry.com/news/health/caffeine-and-the-olympics
[12] https://shastaortho.com/shasta-orthopaedics-blog/are-energy-drinks-with-high-caffeine-okay-for-athletes/
[13] http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-drink/crush-your-workouts-coffee
[14] https://www.goviter.com/blogs/viter-blog/how-much-caffeine-is-safe-for-adults
[15] https://amzn.to/34rwqMM

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