A lot of unhealthy folks drink an awful lot of coffee, which is hardly an encouraging sign that coffee and athletic performance go hand in hand. But, used properly, coffee is a powerful - and tasty - tool in any athlete’s arsenal, particularly endurance athletes. The key is knowing, when and how often to drink it, and how you make it
How coffee can help athletic performance
Coffee has the potential to deliver three performance advantages:
- Muscles are encouraged to use fat for fuel, hello fuel efficiency!
- Caffeine can help lower perceived effort, helping you go harder when you need to
- Provides a short term shot of energy and mental alertness
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When to drink coffee as an athlete
With these benefits, it's easy to ramp up consumption with the belief that downing endless cups of coffee will turn you from sedentary office worker to Bradley Wiggins. Alas, this is highly misguided as all it will actually do is fast-track you into hospital as a jibbering, jittering, wreck headed for burnout, exhaustion and worse.
Coffee can indeed be powerful for athletes, but its positives quickly turn to negatives with over-use. As tolerance rises, you become immune to the benefits, while the addiction drives higher consumption and worsening performance results.
So, a few simple coffee timing rules:
- Less is more: one cup a day is a sensible maximum
- Even less is even more: if you do drink a daily coffee, try cutting it out occasionally. This way you can train your body to manage without it with zero risk of any withdrawl
- Stop coffee consumption for a few days before big races: this way you maximise its performance benefits when you do have that race day shot
- Avoid afternoons: coffee can mess with sleep, which in turn messes with recovery, which in turn derails performance improvements. So, as a rule of thumb don’t drink it at all after midday
- Pre-race and pre-workout coffee use: a coffee 3-4 hours before competition is optimal
- In-race coffee use: think of caffeine here as a single-use get out of jail card. It will pick you up, but that pick-up comes at a price as there will be a subsequent crash. For this reason it’s best used at the end of the race, not the start or middle. The only exception is all-night ultramarathons and other extreme endurance events where a caffeine hit as the sun comes up can be a helpful additional signal to the body to fire up, wake up and get after it!
Make your coffee a morning thing for best results, and save caffeine hits for the later stages of races
Athletes and coffee - best blends
Those giant frosted, salted-caramel, double frappucino found in coffee emporiums worldwide are not a font of performance. If that’s what you want, be honest and buy yourself a tub of ice cream.
Meanwhile, back in the real world of coffee these are the best options for athletes looking to enjoy a performance hit with their coffee:
- Espresso: hard core, no messing about, a simple sharp shot. Beloved by Italians and cyclists everywhere
- Long black: the power of the espresso diluted to take the edge off for a longer drink. The reliable purist’s option
- Cappucino or regular white coffee: this is as fancy as you want to get with your coffee ever, and ideally you’d swap the milk out for unsweetened almond milk, but we get this isn’t always practical out there in the real world.
Why do you want to avoid the milk when you can? In short, it isn’t great for performance thanks to the being packed full of antibiotics and hormones, and the fact the animals it tends to come from are deeply unwell at best
- Bulletproof coffee: you’ve heard the name, but what is bulletproof coffee? It’s basically black coffee with a big dollop of saturated fat in it that’s then whisked up in a blender and turned into a high-calorie, high-fat, tasty, creamy coffee delight. Some folks add cream, ghee or butter for the fat, we prefer coconut oil for a powerful, clean, plant-based take on bulletproof.
There's an ever growing range of coffees to choose from. Not all bring performance gains
What’s the big deal with bulletproof coffee?
Simply put the fat delivers slow-release calories meaning fewer hunger pangs, while it also smooths out the caffeine release in the coffee meaning a longer, steadier burn of energy instead of the short sharp shock of an espresso. This can all also help with improving fat burning and energy efficiency. The key though is to whip the mix up in a blender to get it creamy and enjoyable.
Coffee, caffeine and sports nutrition
Because of these assorted performance benefits with caffeine, it is in a ton of sports nutrition products. Trouble is, most are also full of sweeteners and other junk ingredients you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, while the caffeine sources are equally low rent.
Prepare our Chia Energy Gels with fresh coffee instead of water for the tastiest, most powerful caffeine gel going
Coffee and athletic performance - conclusion
The good news is coffee and athletic performance do go hand in hand - all you have to do is make great coffee and time it right. Cheers.