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Can caffeine really help you be a better athlete? Maybe. According to new research presented this week at the Society for Experimental Biology annual meeting, high doses of caffeine may increase muscle power and endurance during exercise. The study, which was conducted by Coventry University researchers on mice, showed that high levels of caffeine increased muscle output by an average of six percent.
Though it's important to note that results in mice aren't always replicated in humans, the study’s authors say the effect in humans is likely to be very similar. If they're right, that 6 percent could be enough of an edge to push athletes in close competition from second into first place. Great news for the Lance Armstrongs of the world, since the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) does not consider caffeine a banned substance.
Scientists already knew that caffeine can increase performance by stimulating the central nervous system. But this is the first study to show that it can also boost muscle capacity. Though that may be alluring enough to make us all want to get silly on espresso shots before our next run, consider first just how much caffeine you would have to consume to enjoy the effects.
For the study, researchers pumped mice full of caffeine until their blood concentration levels was 70 micrometers–the maximum amount that people can generally tolerate. According to the study’s lead author, Rob James, PhD, professor of biomolecular and sports science at Conventry University, people who regularly drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages have blood concentration levels of about 20 to 50 micrometers. Other research suggests that four cups of coffee will put a person’s caffeine blood levels at 60. So, clearly, 70 micrometers of caffeine is not for the jittery, anxious or weak of heart. And unless you make a living competing for guts, glory and gold medals, the amount of caffeine required to boost one’s performance is probably more uncomfortable–and perhaps even riskier--than it’s worth.
Should this study make you want to experiment with your caffeine levels–though we don’t recommend it (let’s just say a paper deadline, plus No-Doz and no food, landed one Daily Dose writer in her college’s infirmary after she couldn’t stop vomiting)–doing it by way of soda could have the opposite effect on your muscles. People who drink two or more liters of cola a day put themselves at risk of low potassium levels, which can cause muscle weakness and other gnarly symptoms, according to a study in the International Journal of Clinical Practice.
But that’s not to say that a single cup of coffee can’t help. Past research suggests that lower doses of caffeine–even one or two mugs’ worth–can help alleviate exercise-induced muscle pain and post-workout soreness by as much as 50%. (And several studies have touted the health benefits of drinking moderate amounts of coffee.) For people who prefer hitting up their local Starbucks after their sweat session, another study, in the Journal of Applied Physiology, reports that post-workout caffeine consumption helps muscles refuel faster.
Though caffeine in low to moderate doses is generally considered safe, high doses of the buzz-inducing drug have been linked to heart rhythm disorders. If you already drink several cups of coffee a day with no ill effects, then it probably can’t hurt to throw in a workout in between your morning cups of joe. If you are not a caffeine drinker, though, consider sipping beet juice instead. Research shows two cups of beet juice can increase endurance by 16%. No heart palpitations, agitation or jitteriness required.
Do you drink coffee before you work out? Chime in below.