Here are the pros and cons behind one of the world’s favorite energy boosters.
Whether it’s in coffee, tea or energy drinks, caffeine is something many of us drink every day. It’s a stimulant that can give us a boost to perform our workouts with more intensity, but it can also be a hindrance. Here are a few of the pros and cons of exercising under the influence of caffeine.
How caffeine works
Before we look at the role caffeine can play in a workout, let’s explore how the substance affects your body. Caffeine is a stimulant that works by increasing the amount of adrenaline in your bloodstream. There’s a naturally occurring molecule in your body called adenosine that binds to specific receptors. When adenosine binds to these receptors, it has the effect of slowing down your central nervous system activity. Simply put, it makes you sleepy.
Caffeine works by binding to the adenosine receptors, which causes your neurons to fire more rapidly. By taking up the receptor spaces, caffeine prevents adenosine from binding and inhibits its slowing effects. When this happens, it triggers a “fight or flight” response, causing your body to release adrenaline into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, your airways open, and you feel more alert.
When it comes to your workout, there are obvious benefits to feeling more alert. Caffeine makes you feel energized, so you can usually work out longer and with more intensity. Many workout supplements—for example, pre-workout drink powders—contain caffeine because it can help users achieve their goals, whether it’s to lift heavier weights or run a faster mile. Caffeine can also increase your body’s rate of fat oxidation during a workout.
In addition to feeling mentally more awake, caffeine physically primes your body for action. Your heart rate increases, pumping more blood to your muscles. Your airways open so you can absorb more oxygen. Your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, and your liver releases sugar that can be metabolized for extra energy, increasing your reaction time. Combined, these changes enhance your athletic performance.
If you do decide to use caffeine before or during your workouts, consider consuming it in a natural form—like tea or coffee—or do your research on the other ingredients contained in a fitness supplement. It’s always a good idea to know what you’re ingesting and how it might affect your body.
Caffeine sounds like a great addition to your fitness plan, but keep in mind that it can have some drawbacks. If you consume too much of the stimulant, it can cause tremors. If severe enough, shakiness in your hands or feet can negatively impact your balance and grip, making it hard to do things like lift free-weights. Too much caffeine can also cause anxiety, which can interrupt your focus and generally make your workout—and the rest of your day—unpleasant.
If consumed regularly over time—for example, if you drink a highly caffeinated beverage before every workout—you may become dependent on the substance. If your body adapts and comes to expect caffeine, it can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches, sluggishness, and irritability when you don’t have it. When you’re not feeling your best, you won’t work out your best.
You can also develop somewhat of a tolerance to caffeine, meaning over time, you need more of the substance to get the same desired effect. While caffeine is fine in moderation for most people, overdoing it can lead to a slippery slope where it’s no longer something you add to your routine as a boost, but something you need in order to function.
Caffeine has many tangible benefits, but the trick is to use it sparingly. Stay aware of how your body responds to caffeine; in particular, look for any of the negative side effects listed above, which could indicate a tolerance to the substance. If you enjoy the natural energy boost from caffeine responsibly, it can be an excellent addition to your fitness and nutrition toolbox.
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