Caffeine: Can It Improve Your Athletic Performance?

red pill and coffee beans on a black background, the concept of drugs containing caffeine

What do a cuppa joe, a piece of dark chocolate, and cold medication have in common?

While all three have their own unique function in the body, not to mention taste, each of these items contains caffeine: a substance that stimulates your body and increases energy.

The worldwide craze for caffeine has busy professionals, multi-tasking moms, and athletes alike seeking out efficient ways to improve productivity and performance. If you're looking to take your workouts to the next level, this guide will help you understand how to use caffeine safely and effectively to enhance your athletic performance.

What Is Caffeine, Anyway?

Records of caffeine consumption date back to the 16th century, and humans have only amped up their efforts to boost energy since then. Humans drink an estimated two billion cups of coffee worldwide daily in order to stay caffeinated.

Caffeine is a psychoactive substance, which means it goes straight to the brain before being sent off in various directions for a number of functions throughout the body. It stimulates the nervous system which has far-reaching effects on all other bodily functions. That energized feeling you get from caffeine ingestion comes from the substance's ability to block a molecule called adenosine.

Adenosine slowly builds up in brain tissue as a result of various daily activities. Daily work tasks, exercise, and even tasks requiring thought all trigger the release and buildup of adenosine in the brain. As your brain tissue becomes saturated with adenosine, your body responds by triggering feelings of fatigue and drowsiness. The molecular structure of caffeine binds easily to adenosine, blocking those feelings and giving you a burst of fresh energy.

How Caffeine Affects Various Body Systems and Structures

Unlike other supplements which specifically target one function in the body, caffeine's effects spread throughout several of the body's systems.

Here's how you can put your daily energy supplement or cup of tea to work for you:

Central Nervous System

Caffeine ingestion improves cognitive performance by stimulating areas of the brain and nervous system. As a result, you feel a surge of energy, reducing feelings of drowsiness and mental fog that can clog up daily activities.

Tea leaves, tea, coffee, and coffee beans on a table


Caffeine has a detrimental effect on the adrenal glands when taken in large quantities, and it significantly impacts two key hormones secreted by these glands. Epinephrine and cortisol work to regulate systems such as respiration, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Studies indicate moderate and well-timed doses of caffeine can positively affect the regulation of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

Immune System

Your immune system consists of innate immunity and acquired immunity. These components work together to keep your body healthy and free from disease. Caffeine works to balance both sides of your immune system, bringing out qualities in your innate immunity while suppressing a hyperactive response from the acquired immune system.

Brain and Mood

Caffeine stimulates the release of "feel-good" chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. This rush of positive feelings, coupled with the ability to block adenosine, puts you in a state of mild euphoria and high energy.

Circulatory System

Caffeine has a significant impact on the body's blood vessels. Pathways can more easily relax and open, leading to increased blood flow throughout the body. This vasodilation, as it is called, allows for better absorption of nutrients and oxygen, leading to more efficient functioning of the circulatory system.

Shortly after vasodilation occurs, blood vessels return to their previous state, a process known as vasoconstriction. Blood vessels narrow once more, bringing your circulatory system back into a slower, more controlled state. This fluctuation in dilation and constriction helps keep arteries flowing freely which in turn prevents plaque build-up that can lead to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

Muscles, Organs, and Other Tissues

Caffeine's effect on muscles and other tissues of the body yields a positive effect when improving temporary efficiency and activity levels. 2018 studies conducted on recreational runners revealed that ingesting moderate amounts of caffeine–three milligrams per kilogram of body weight–improved both speed and efficiency during workouts.

Caffeine was also shown to positively impact delayed muscle soreness and discomfort. These immediate and delayed-reaction results may have long-term implications for those wishing to improve physical fitness.

Man does push-ups in a gym

What Caffeine Will Do For Your Workout

What sports medicine and nutrition experts know about pre and post-workout nutrition has revolutionized how athletes fuel themselves around vigorous gym sessions. Getting in your best shape involves more than just keto diets and carb cycling; information about nutrients is used to take workouts and fitness to the next level.

Athletes have become smarter about taking supplements that work to enhance athletic performance. Caffeine is widely used to enhance energy and improve mental focus, though its effects reveal more about the need for strategic, well-timed use. According to research conducted by Men's Health, an estimated “three-fourths of the world's first-class athletes admit to using caffeine as a performance enhancer before, during, and even after competitions.”

Read on to see how you might make some gains in the gym, on the track, or at home on the mat with safe and strategic caffeine use.

More Than Just Coffee

While coffee still seems to be the gold standard for recreational and professional athletes alike, caffeine can be ingested in several different ways to improve endurance and physical performance.

Energy Drinks

An energy drink is a caffeinated beverage other than coffee or tea. They come ready with a high-caffeine content — sometimes even higher than your standard black joe. Many brands of energy drinks contain additional substances such as vitamins, minerals, and energizing supplements such as guarana to boost the high-octane effects.


Get your caffeine buzz going with an easy-to-swallow, delicious gummy that promises a boost of energy. Gummies are small and compact, travel well, and are homogenous, meaning that the caffeine dose is distributed evenly throughout. Something as delicious as a gummy can be tempting to overdo; be careful not to consume a higher quantity of caffeine than recommended, or you could develop unwelcome side effects.

Caffeine supplement gummies


Supplements or pills containing caffeine contain both natural and synthetic forms of the performance-enhancing drug. The amount of caffeine contained in each varies depending on the brand you purchase. Most contain between 100-200 milligrams per tablet, which is equivalent to about one cup of strong coffee.

While caffeine pills are safe for most people when taken in moderation, those with pre-existing health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure should follow the advice of a physician when attempting to supplement workouts with a caffeine pill.

Energy Gels

Energy gels originally belonged to the long-distance runner. Containing a powerful blend of carbohydrates, electrolytes, nutrients, and caffeine, these uber-stuffed foil packets quickly replenished a marathoner's glycogen stores and protected fibrous muscle tissue from breaking down under stressful conditions. Caffeinated energy gel products help your body metabolize fat as fuel rather than drawing from excess carbohydrate stores.

Caffeinated Gum

Caffeinated gum can absorb into the bloodstream faster than coffee or workout gels, as it enters straight through the lining of your cheeks. Absorption through the skin increases its bioavailability, giving you more power and pizazz from fewer milligrams used. In addition, chewing gum increases alertness, improves performance, and lowers stress.

Pre-Workout Powders and Supplements

The pre-workout powder of the past bears little resemblance to the sophisticated formulas waiting for your review. Many of these powders and tinctures contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, and even live enzymes designed to amp up muscle tissue and make those neural pathways sing as commands make their way to muscle and connective tissue.

While it may be tempting to overload before a vigorous workout, follow dosage directions closely concerning your body weight until you know how you will react to the unique blend of ingredients.

Caffeine preworkout powder container and scoop

Unadulterated Pure Caffeine

Unless you're a seasoned professional athlete or a trained physician, you should never attempt to take caffeine in its highly concentrated form. Just one teaspoon of pure, powdered caffeine contains as much caffeine as that found in 28 cups of coffee; this is way beyond what is considered safe.

Doctors and fitness experts recommend no more than 400-600 mg per day of caffeine for optimal performance and health. Avoid any product or powder that promises big results with high amounts of concentrated caffeine at all costs.

Caffeine Intake and Sports Performance

Once you choose your method of supplementation, it's time to get down to the business of amping up that workout. Here are some ways that you can expect to see your fitness efforts pay off with caffeine supplementation.

Increased Endurance

Studies done by researchers for Med Sci Sports revealed that caffeine proved a superior method of increasing performance over carbohydrates and water. The supplement increased perceived exertion by 7.4 percent compared to the control group given carbohydrates, which scored 5.2 percent.

The effects of caffeine were also assessed through coffee consumption alone. A 1500-meter run by endurance athletes yielded faster results than those who consumed coffee over their decaffeinated counterparts.

More Frequent Bursts of Energy

In the case of high-intensity exercises like sprinting, plyometrics, and other sports involving high energy output, the addition of caffeine has a positive effect on both professional and untrained athletes. It's important to note that proper dosage is necessary while undergoing this type of exercise as higher-than-normal amounts of caffeine can adversely affect the heart.

Greater Gains in Strength Training

In his strength training glory, Arnold Schwarzenegger was known to down some black coffee before engaging in a strenuous workout. If it's good enough for "the Arnold," it should be good enough for your workout, right? Studies show a positive effect on strength training exercises like bench press and leg press, and muscular endurance is also significantly impacted by moderate amounts of caffeine taken before a workout.

Man stretches in a gym

Faster Metabolism and Weight Loss

Caffeine naturally increases your body's metabolism and primes your body for increased fat loss whether you're working out or not. New studies from the University of Granada reveal that drinking one cup of strong coffee half an hour before working out can increase your fat-burning ability by as much as 40 percent. Interestingly, the effects were more pronounced for people who worked out in the afternoon rather than in the morning or evening. 

Getting the Most From Your Caffeine

Reaping the benefits from your caffeine involves knowing when and how much to consume for your intended workout and daily activities. Doses of less than three milligrams–the amount you'd find in a single cup of coffee–did not seem to produce significant effects for professional or recreational athletes. Moderate doses of five to seven milligrams, or 300-400 milliliters for someone weighing 130 pounds, seem to be a sweet spot for many. Anything more than five to seven milligrams is considered risky territory for most, so it appears that moderation is vital for the best results.

Supplements Versus Coffee?

Caffeine in supplement form is more effective than coffee consumption, although some loyal coffee enthusiasts would staunchly object to this theory. Taking caffeine in supplement form is more convenient for a competitive athlete than slinging back three to four cups of coffee before a competition.

Sports-endorsed, sports-specific supplements like pills, chews, gummies, gels, and bars work more effectively in an athletic performance situation. Make sure your supplement is doctor-approved before adding it to your regular workout and competition schedule.


Some habitual users of caffeine practice a period of withdrawal before competitions and training to become sensitized to its effects once more. A study involving professional athletes undergoing an abstinence period of four to seven days showed an increased sensitivity to caffeine when compared to its usual effects when taken daily as part of a training protocol. This indicates that the body develops an expected response to specific dosages and that mixing it up from time to time can affect athletic performance, much like muscle confusion does for strength and endurance training. 


For athletes to perform well, consumption should be well planned, timed correctly, and integrated into an overall fitness and nutrition plan. Keeping track of your regular caffeine intake, caloric intake, and training plan will give you an accurate picture of what needs adjusting for better performance.

As caffeine takes 30-45 minutes to take full effect, timing your dosage correctly will make a significant difference when planning to take your workouts to the next level. Many athletes cite that they begin caffeine supplementation two hours before an event to allow gastric effects to occur, then additional doses as needed when going through competition or training. 

Woman stretches arms overhead early in the morning


The Food and Drug Administration recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily. The average cup of coffee contains about 95 milligrams of caffeine, while other products such as energy drinks can contain anywhere from 50-160 milligrams of caffeine per serving. Current research suggests that five milligrams per kilogram of body weight are effective for improving most types of exercise performance, as long as the upper limitations are observed. 

For you westerners out there, one kilogram is the equivalent of 2.2 pounds. A 120-pound individual would weigh 54.4 kilograms, and the optimal caffeine dose before a workout would be no more than 272 milligrams of caffeine.

Drug Interactions

Certain medications and supplements may cause unpleasant side effects when mixed with caffeine. Some of these can even have life-threatening complications if the proper dosage is not adhered to. Examples of this include:


Often found in decongestants, ephedrine can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and seizure when combined with caffeine. Those with blood pressure issues should not mix these substances under any circumstances.


Echinacea is an herbal supplement used to prevent colds and infections. It can increase caffeine's concentration in your blood, causing nausea, difficulty breathing, and irregular heartbeat.


Theophylline is used to open up bronchial pathways in those with respiratory problems. It has properties and effects similar to caffeine, so taking it with another caffeine supplement will exponentially increase the effects that both substances have on your body.

Always check with your doctor when adding supplements to your nutrition and workout routine to ensure you can do so safely and effectively.

Let's Get Moving!

There's no doubt that caffeine has significant impacts on athletic performance and health in general. Knowing when, how, and how much to take will be the difference that can take you across the finish line and to the top in competition, overall fitness, and health. 

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