If java is what gets you out of bed and gives you the strength to face the day, you don’t have to feel bad. According to the latest dietary guidelines, you can drink three to five 8-ounce cups of drip coffee per day (up to 400 mg caffeine per day) and still consider it part of a healthy diet. Coffee is high in antioxidants, has been linked to a reduced risk for certain diseases, including cancer and diabetes. Plus, it just might give you an edge when you exercise.
Why Pro Athletes Lean on Caffeine
Caffeine is one of the most popular performance-enhancing drugs for endurance athletes, taken by nearly all runners, cyclists, and triathletes. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Agency stopped testing for it as of 2004—reinforcing that it’s not as harmful as we once thought, and offers real benefits. “There are two reasons athletes love caffeine,” explains Holly Perkins, CSCS and author of Lift to Get Lean. “First, it’s a mild analgesic, reducing your experience of pain, which makes you feel awesome and able to tolerate higher levels of work. The second reason, which endurance athletes get super excited about, is that it frees up fatty acids to use as fuel,” says Perkins. “That’s a big deal because it preserves carbs in your muscles and liver, so you don’t bonk during your sport. Caffeine can help you train your body and your metabolism to burn fat as fuel. And that will help you push your limits and run like a Ferrari.”
Science Supports Caffeine Claims
A recent review of more than 600 studies confirms the science. Most studies look at pro athletes taking pure caffeine pills, but nine of the trials just used coffee. The authors concluded that 3 to 7 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight increased endurance performance by an average of 24 percent. For a person of average weight, that means taking in as little as 200 mg of caffeine, easily covered by one tall cup of Starbucks brew.
Cups of coffee vary in terms of how much caffeine they contain, so competitors are more likely to pop supplements or reach for sports drinks, gels, or gummies. Those kinds of products make it easier to carefully measure and time your intake across a race, and it has become an art form. Some people metabolize caffeine more quickly than others, and athletes worry about building up a tolerance—you don’t want to get used to it, but you also don’t want to try it for the first time on race day, and wind up overstimulated, dehydrated, or with an upset stomach. Perkins also cautions her athletes against overtraining, by showing up for workouts extra charged. But some guys just love their coffee off the course. Fitbit ambassadors crave the real stuff: former pro runner Ryan Hall is on the buttered coffee bandwagon, and cycling legend Jens Voigt doesn’t mind a quick coffee break in the afternoon. (Yes, he’s European.)
Caffeine Advice for Regular Joes
What does all this mean for you, and your next workout? “There is a big difference between the average Joe and performance athletes,” says Perkins. “But you can reap all of these benefits, as well! A cup of pure black coffee an hour before your workout can definitely help you feel great and perform better.” If you have caffeine every day and your body is used to it, you might not notice. But if you drink coffee infrequently or you’re starting a new fitness program, you’re definitely going to feel it.
The bottom line: Caffeine isn’t all bad. If that cup of coffee wakes you up, boosts your mood, and makes you just a little bit happier to hit the gym—go for it! Just keep in mind, the fueling method that helps a marathoner finish strong after 26.2 miles is different from what’s going to support your morning workout. But it could certainly help you squeeze in a few more reps or put a little more pep in your run. Just avoid over-caffeinating in the afternoon—or you might regret it by bedtime.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.