Looking for an extra boost before training? Drinking coffee before a workout may be one of the easiest ways to enhance your performance, says nutritionist Christine Bailey.

Fancy a cuppa? You’re not alone. Coffee is one of the most commonly consumed drinks worldwide. Naturally rich in caffeine and antioxidants, it’s well known as an effective ergogenic aid, or performance enhancer. Indeed, caffeine is probably the most researched supplement shown to improve performance across a wide range of sports. But should you be drinking coffee before a workout?

Learn more about pre-workout nutrition for women

The most common dietary source of caffeine is coffee, but it is also present in tea, cola drinks, energy drinks, chocolate and sports supplements. The major benefits of caffeine on exercise performance appear to be due to its effects on the central nervous system – it exerts a direct stimulatory effect on the muscles, while decreasing the perception of how hard you are working.

Caffeine taken before and during exercise can reduce feelings of fatigue, improve focus and alertness, and allow you to exercise for longer. Additionally, when it comes to sports performance, caffeine can enhance muscular strength and power, increase aerobic endurance and improve skills such as sprinting, jumping and throwing.

How much caffeine is enough?

A lot of research has looked at the dose-response relationship between caffeine intake and exercise performance. While higher doses (5-9mg/kg body mass) do provide performance benefits, they also increase the risk of side effects such as increases in heart rate, anxiety, sleep problems and digestive upsets.

Fortunately, more recent research suggests that lower doses of about 3mg/kg or roughly 200mg still produce performance benefits with few, if any, side effects. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) suggests a dose of between 3-6mg/ kg body mass for sports performance.

There is no one-size-fits-all, however. Our response to caffeine is highly variable, which is thought to be linked to how quickly our body metabolises caffeine. If you are not used to taking caffeine, then it is worth starting with the lowest efficient dose of 1.5mg/ kg, or roughly 100mg, and gradually increasing as needed.

runner with coffee

How should I take caffeine?

Caffeine is rapidly absorbed, with concentrations peaking after between 30-120 minutes. While many people take caffeine 30-60 minutes before exercise, you will probably notice the benefits sooner. In fact, caffeine appears to be most beneficial during times where fatigue becomes more noticeable, such as during endurance training or high-intensity activities.

This means, for some people, consuming caffeine during exercise (mid/later stages) may be more beneficial than ingestion beforehand. The optimal timing of caffeine ingestion can also depend on the source of caffeine. For example, caffeine via chewing gum absorbs rapidly, making it useful for a quick pick-me-up. However, there are many other ways to consume caffeine, in addition to coffee. It is available in capsule form, sports drinks, tablets, gels and bars. Most energy gels contain around 75g-100g per sachet.

Caffeine and fat loss

So, what about caffeine and fat loss? For your body composition, caffeine may help you burn more calories by raising body temperature, boosting metabolism and increasing fat oxidation, helping you utilise more fatty acids for fuel. One study found up to a 29 per cent increase in fat oxidation in lean subjects and a 10 per cent increase oxidation in obese women. That said, while increasing fatty acid oxidation sounds great, it’s important to note that total daily calorie balance is still key.

Does it have a negative impact on sleep? Caffeine can affect sleep onset and quality, even at low levels of intake. While the average half-life of caffeine is generally reported to be at between four and six hours – in other words, about half of caffeine remains in your blood after this period – it varies between individuals and may range from 90 minutes to 10 hours in adults. If you struggle with getting quality sleep, consider limiting your caffeine intake to the morning only.

Drinking coffee before a workout: performance benefits

You might wonder if you should withdraw from caffeine before a race, and it was previously thought this would further boost performance. However, recent studies show there is no difference in the performance response to caffeine between non-users and users of caffeine – withdrawing athletes from caffeine does not increase the net improvement in the performance achieved with caffeine supplementation. That said, if you are not used to taking caffeine, it’s important that you test it out before a competition – during training sessions.

Health benefits of drinking coffee

There’s more to coffee than its caffeine content. One of the reasons coffee has unique health benefits is because it has an extremely high antioxidant content, including polyphenols such as chlorogenic acid. Drinking coffee in moderation (up to three to four cups) appears to be protective against a number of chronic diseases.

Multiple studies have shown that regular coffee consumption may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by more than 50 per cent; other studies suggest lifelong regular consumption of coffee reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and depression.

While caffeine can increase blood pressure, some research indicates that drinking coffee may be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. As with anything, you can have too much of a good thing, so don’t go overboard. Even one or two cups per day have been shown to provide health benefits.

woman drinks coffee while on run

Caffeine chart: how much caffeine is in tea and coffee?

The caffeine content in drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate can be highly variable, and will depend on the brand, brewing method and size of drink, but here is a general guide.

  • Instant coffee: 250ml/1 cup = 12-169mg caffeine
  • Brewed coffee: 250ml/1 cup = 40-110mg caffeine
  • Espresso: Standard serve = 107mg caffeine
  • Black tea: 250ml/1 cup = 25-110mg caffeine
  • Green tea: 250ml/1 cup = 30-50mg caffeine
  • Iced tea: 600ml bottle = 20-40mg caffeine
  • Frappuccino: 375 ml cup = 90mg caffeine
  • Hot chocolate: 250ml/1 cup = 5-10mg caffeine
  • Energy drink: 500ml can = 160mg caffeine

Related: calories in alcohol – what has the least & most?

Best healthy coffee alternatives

Not keen on drinking coffee before a workout? Swap your regular cup of joe for these caffeine supplements, complete with added health and performance benefits.

foodspring aminos

Foodspring Energy Aminos


£29.99 for 400g, foodspring.co.uk

Contains 200mg caffeine, with vitamins and BCAA (branched-chain amino acids).

science in sport caffeine tablets

Science in Sport Go Hydro + Caffeine Cola


£48 for 20 Tablets, scienceinsport.com

Boasts 75mg caffeine per tablet, plus electrolytes for hydration.

dirtea mushroom coffee

Dirtea Mushroom Coffee Super Blend


£39.99 for 60 servings, dirteaworld.com

Uses Arabica coffee with 1,000mg of lion’s mane, chaga and cordyceps, plus ashwagandha and maca.