Aw Crap, Was Drinking Coffee Before My Workout a Terrible Idea?

Photo: Getty Images / adamkaz
Coffee is probably the closest substance we have on earth to actual magic. Just one daily cup provides all kinds of health benefits: it may protect your peepers from glaucoma, decrease your lifetime risk of cancer, and even potentially reduce your risk of an early death. A 2014 double-blind randomized study out of Helsinki even showed that drinking coffee before a workout makes it more enjoyable (See? Magic!).

On the subject of workouts, Claire Shorenstein, RD, a New York-based registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition, adds that the caffeine in coffee is “widely researched as an ergogenic aid, or a substance that can enhance sports performance.” That’s why caffeine is a key ingredient in many sports nutrition bars and gels, she says, and why so many runners carry caffeine gels with them during marathons. But even if you’re not a runner, the caffeine in coffee can provide an energy jolt, making it an important part of many people's pre-workout ritual.

Here are some of the other major health benefits of coffee: 

There are a few things to keep in mind, however, before downing coffee before a workout. One is timing. “Caffeine is quickly absorbed in the stomach and increases in the blood within 30 to 60 minutes, peaking about one to two hours after digestion,” Shorenstein says. Your mileage may vary, but Shorenstein generally recommends timing your workout for around the 30 to 60 minute mark after drinking coffee.

If you find that caffeine upsets your stomach (or, ahem, really makes you have go number two), Shorenstein recommends giving yourself a little more time to digest before hitting the gym or track. “The last thing you want to have happen in the middle of the workout is to run to the bathroom,” she says. “So you just need to know your body and how quickly you process things.”

You may also want to pair your cuppa with a carb-heavy snack, especially if you’re prepping for a high-intensity workout. A little Sports Nutrition 101: Your body’s main source of fuel are carbs, but unfortunately, it doesn’t store them very well, so you have to replenish. “It’s what your muscles prefer at a higher intensity,” Shorenstein says. “At lower or moderate intensity, we’re working with a mix of fat and carbs.” She recommends half of a banana or a piece of toast with peanut butter (or another nut butter of your choice). Other good options: A half-cup of oatmeal or Greek yogurt with nuts or dried fruit.

Timing comes into play here as well. If it’s the middle of the day and you just ate lunch, you may be good to go with a quick shot of espresso; if you’re running to the gym at 6 p.m., and you haven’t eaten for five hours, Shorenstein says you “definitely want to make sure you’re having a snack an hour or two beforehand.”

If you're more of a p.m. exerciser, it might be best to skip the pre-workout coffee. Caffeine has a half-life of around six hours, so downing an espresso at 8 p.m. may not be a smart move unless you want to toss and turn restlessly all night. The general rule is that you should quit caffeinating around six to eight hours before you go to sleep. That means if you generally aim for a 10 p.m. bedtime, you’ll want to drink your last cup of coffee no later than 2 p.m.

Otherwise, there’s no reason you need to avoid coffee before a workout. It mostly comes down to knowing your body, Shorenstein says. Plus, coffee isn’t necessary for a good workout, she adds. It’s mostly a nice-to-have. In other words, if you know that one cup of coffee sends you running to the toilet immediately, don’t sweat it. But if you need a quick pick-me-up or a slight edge to power you through your barre class? Feel free to drink up.

Fun fact: How you brew your coffee affects the caffeine content. And hey, what's the deal with CBD coffee?

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