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Coffee Can Boost Endurance During Exercise

by Laura Beans

Research shows caffeine, taken the traditional way, in a cup of joe, can improve energy levels and stamina during exercise

Once thought of as a vice, coffee has proven itself time and again on the health circuit. Rich in antioxidants and essential nutrients, coffee has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s as well as Type 2 diabetes. And now, a new study validates the theories that the breakfast beverage has beneficial side effects on exercise and endurance, as well.

The study looks to shed much needed light on the benefits of caffeine as consumed through coffee when taken prior to athletic training, as most of the previous research conducted on caffeine’s positive effects on exercise has focused experiments around ingesting caffeine in a concentrated, tablet form.

There are several predominant theories as to why coffee (and caffeine) may improve endurance during exercise, according to Alexandra Miller, RDN, LDN, and Corporate Dietitian at Medifast, Inc. Caffeine in coffee is believed to have an “antagonist” effect on adenosine receptors in the brain, which improves circulation to the heart and muscles, while stimulating energy production. Another theory states that caffeine aids concentration and contributes to clearer thinking.

Caffeine is also thought to lower the threshold for exercise-induced endorphin and cortisol release. “These hormones are often referred to as the ‘feel good’ hormones,” says Miller. “They are believed to be what is behind a “runner’s high” and may contribute to the reported exercise benefits.”

Plus, Miller points out, “Many people drink a hot cup of coffee not just for the energy boost but because the warm liquid promotes bowel movements and helps empty them out prior to exercise.’

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

The study’s findings are of important consequence because caffeine alternatives, including pure powders sold in bulk form on the Internet and over-the-counter tablets available at local drugstores, are accompanied with real risks—like anxiousness and nausea, and in the most severe cases, overdoses and fatalities.

In 2014, according to the New York Times, the U.S. imported nearly 17 million pounds of powdered caffeine from places like China and India. The pure, powdered caffeine that is sold in the U.S. is usually synthesized in overseas pharmaceutical labs, as a way to keep costs down.

It is this imported caffeine powder that is added to American’s soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi, and formed into capsules like NoDoz and Alert. Depending on how the drug is packaged—as a dietary supplement or a medication—it can be regulated in different ways, which is beneficial to the companies marketing these products, but confusing for the consumer, and can often allow for excess, misinterpretation and accidents.

Plus these supplements often contain additives such as fillers, preservatives and coloring.

Last year—after two young men died in 2014 from overdosing on caffeine pills—six democratic Senators asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the retails sales of caffeine in powder form; New York State banned the sale of the substance to minors; and several other states introduced legislation to restrict or prohibit access to pure caffeine.

Go the Extra Mile

The new study found that athletes who consumed three to seven milligrams of caffeine through coffee saw an average improvement in endurance performance of 24 percent. A 3.1 percent improvement was also found with said athletes in competition trials.

Coffee’s caffeine content varies depending on roast, type of bean, type of grind, and brewing method, according to Miller.

“Darker roasts actually have less caffeine than light roasts, even though the flavor is stronger,” says Miller. “Roasting burns off some of the caffeine.”

Everybody responds differently to caffeine, so factors such as timing and amount of consumption varies from person to person. Caffeine is typically absorbed quickly—hitting peak levels in the blood stream one to two hours after ingestion.

Miller says that a target dose of caffeine is about 1.5 milligrams of caffeine per pound. Therefore, for a 150-pound person, this is about 2 cups of coffee, as an average 16 oz cup of coffee has about 265 milligrams of caffeine.

But Miller notes to err on the side of caution, to not “overdo it,” and points out the position the National Collegiate Athletic Association has taken, listing caffeine as a prohibited substance for competing athletes.

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