A few times in the last couple of weeks a particular question has come up regarding post-exercise caffeine consumption. As coffee is near and dear to my heart, this is something I have looked into extensively, and I thought this would be the perfect time to give the longer, more detailed answer!
At this point in time, there is very little question about the positive benefits of PRE-workout caffeine consumption. As far back as 1978, researchers were showing the positive benefits of caffeine ingestion on endurance performance to exhaustion and on the rating of perceived exertion during such an activity (Costill et al.)
Research on the effects of caffeine on short-term, high intensity exercise have not been so clear, with some research indicating no effect during a 30 second all out cycling bout (the dreaded Wingate Test) (Collomp et al.); while others researchers indicated that short-term, high intensity was improved (Bell et al.)
All can agree, however, that all of the positive benefits that occur are governed by the caffeine-induced stimulation of what is known as the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS.) The SNS is the aspect of your nervous system known for producing the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When a human needs to take action, the SNS takes over. Some of its many effects include: increased mental alertness, increased heart rate, increased respiration rate, increased blood flow to the skeletal muscles and to the skin, mobilization of stored fuel (body fat!), and a general increase in metabolic activity. All of this prepares the body to either fight or flee, or, the more likely event during the present day, to exercise.
It is precisely these same mechanisms, however, that make POST-workout caffeine consumption less than desirable. If the SNS is the ‘accelerator’ of the body, then the opposing Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) is the ‘brakes.’ The SNS will be dominant during exercise, and any physical activity for that matter, and the PSNS should be dominant while we are at rest.
It is at rest that our bodies rebuild, and most notably for the purposes of this discussion, it is at rest when our skeletal muscles rebuild and grow.
If caffeine is ingested POST-workout, the SNS will again be stimulated and our bodies will go into ‘mobilization-mode’, rather than allowing the PSNS to take over and encourage an anabolic environment where rest and recovery can be optimized.
So the question is: how can a coffee connoisseur avoid this less than optimal situation? (I use the word optimal because the bottom line is that it may not REALLY matter for the average person. However, if you are interested in making the most out of the work that you put into the gym, then this is the optimal situation!)
Working out early in the morning can make it tough to enjoy coffee pre-workout. Here is how to deal with it- get up a little early and enjoy some coffee, not only because you love it, but because there is research to prove that it improves your performance in the gym! After the training session, consume a protein shake or some other meal which will provide you with a healthy dose of all three macronutrients.
Then give yourself a few hours. Allow your body to bask in the anabolic environment promoted by reduced SNS activity for a few hours, and then grab a cup of coffee or tea with lunch or during the mid-afternoon lull that we all feel (which, ironically, is caused by a naturally occurring dip in our SNS activity.)
Just be careful not to have that caffeine too deep into the afternoon, as sleep disturbances will become more likely the later in the day that you consume caffeine! A recommendation I have incorporated into my daily routine that has clearly paid off is no caffeine past 2:30 in the afternoon. Within 2 weeks or so of implementing this, my sleep quality has noticeably improved!
Bell DG, I Jacobs, and K Ellerington. Effects of caffeine and ephedrine ingestion on anaerobic exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001; 33(8): 1399-1403.
Collomp K, S Ahmaidi, M Audran, JL Chanal, and Ch Prefaut. Effects of caffeine ingestion on performance and anaerobic metabolism during the Wingate test. Int J Sports Med. 1991; 12(5): 439-443.
Costill DL, GP Dalsky, and WJ Fink. Effects of caffeine ingestion on metabolism and exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1978; 10(3): 155-158.