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Going Strong: How Pre-Workout Caffeine Affects Your Training

Going Strong:  How Pre-Workout Caffeine Affects Your Training
Nicholas Chase

There isn’t a single day that goes by, aside from race week, where I don’t fully indulge in my pre-workout caffeine ritual. In fact, I would bet I’m part of the majority when it comes to athletes and caffeine. Having been part of many training camps, as well as having coached them, I know that if people don’t get their daily coffee ritual within 30 minutes of waking, the tension is palpable.

I myself didn’t stumble upon a staple coffee addiction until my mid 20’s. Before then, you could find me slamming 3 to 4 energy drinks with all the associated highs and lows. It wasn’t until I discovered how much money I was spending on such huge doses of stimulants — coupled with my transcendence into a healthier lifestyle — that I realized I needed help to gradually wean myself from those addictive cans of energy that were also hurting my ability to improve athletically. It was then that I transitioned into the vast, endless sea of brown goodness; yes, I mean coffee.

My move to coffee wasn’t an easy transition, and to this day I’m still sometimes reminded of my former obsession. In fact, just the other day, one of the pro athletes on my triathlon team, PEWAG Racing Team, cracked one of these bad boys open about 25 feet away from me and within the blink of an eye, I remembered that smell. The smell of complete, unnatural fury in a can. Sigh...

Come to think of it, I can’t remember the day I actually started to enjoy coffee. Of course, my taste buds took a while to adapt. I will say I’ve never been one to add cream or sugar either; for me, it’s just a splash of cold almond milk so I can drop the temp of my preferred coffee drink — an Americano — and drink it without scorching my tongue off. All I can tell you is that my early attempts at coffee were purely so I could stay awake during long work hours in the US Air Force. Present day, I would compare my love for coffee to the likes of someone who loves Bordeaux wine or craft beer. Each batch of heavenly beans is unique, and yes, I do get the highest quality beans I can find.

That’s the thing with coffee. When you make the right choices and do your “homework”, it’s essentially one of the healthiest forms of caffeine you can consume, both pre workout and post. There’s no added sugar, sugar replacements, dairy, nuts, cocoa butter, carbonation, caramel coloring or potentially harmful additives that you have to worry about with other caffeinated foods like chocolate, soda or energy drinks.


Coffee, Caffeine and the Effects on Athletic Performance

Thankfully, a bonus to my newfound coffee bean addiction is that the caffeine found in coffee is an ergogenic training aid for athletic performance. Caffeine helps stimulate clearer thoughts and more precise decision making — especially important on race day when life comes at you fast.  There are actually more than 70 studies to prove these benefits, and, in fact, for most sanctioned sports, there are limits to how much caffeine may be present in an athlete’s bloodstream because it can amplify performance that much (approximately 12% in performance gains). Legal limit tends to be mean an average-size athlete must consume less than 700 mg of caffeine (approximately seven 8-ounce cups of coffee—and note that “a cup” is probably much less than your average coffee mug) or around 13 mg/kg of body weight (Woolf, 2009). Keep in mind, too, that caffeine is present in chocolate, tea, cola etc., so it can add up quite quickly.

Caffeine has pulled me out of many dark places during IRONMAN events where suddenly only a minuscule dixie cup of flat, warm soda feels like being handed a hundred dollars. My posture and form change, my attitude improves and dang-it, life is good. All that being said, however, in my experience, there is definitely a cap. I’ve never really measured out how many milligrams is overkill for me, but the one time I decided to take a caffeine pill during a race (on top of caffeinated gels and drinks), my heart rate bumped up about 10 beats per minute. It was also a terrible idea for my physical performance. Aside from my heart feeling like it was about to explode, I also experienced some extreme lows after the awesome “high”. For these reasons, properly-timed coffee consumption in moderate quantities remains king, mixed with race-day caffeinated sports drinks and gels.


Pre-Workout Caffeine: How Much, How Often and Why - The Science

In my personal experience, a low-to-moderate amount of caffeine per hour, during both training and racing, has been proven to work best. After consuming 2 shots of espresso pre-race,  I’ll typically ingest one gel per 45 minutes and 1 bottle per hour on the bike, so my average hourly intake of caffeine is around 25-30 mg of caffeine. Science shows that taking in OVER 4 mg of caffeine per 4 lb of bodyweight (divide your weight by 4 and that’s how many 4mg servings you should be able to handle) can produce more side effects like jitters, headaches—or, like me, you just pee a lot and your heart rate skyrockets—not exactly a recipe for a strong race day.

When consumed in appropriate amounts, pre-workout caffeine is shown to have many physical and psychological benefits, such as an increased tolerance to pain during endurance events and sharper mental focus, but, mainly, it makes your current level of output feel less intense —like you can keep going...and going.... This, however, is always a topic of debate for scientists. For example, 13 trained male cyclists were given either 1,  2 or 3 mg/kg, of caffeine one hour pre-workout and asked to warm up at 60 percent VO2max, followed by a 15-minute time trial. Results showed a general 4 percent increase in overall normalized power output for the groups given either 2 or 3 mg/kg of caffeine versus the placebo group, though note that the results were varied (Jenkins, 2008). This is further proof that caffeine as an ergogenic aid will often time yield a range of positive effects, but it does depend on the individual.

Curiously enough, research shows that not all sports will see a boost in performance after caffeine consumption. For sports that operate near the higher end of an athlete’s V02 max, the psychological effect of caffeine is a bit more apparent. For example, sports like cycling, row, distance running and cross-country skiing seem to lean in favor of caffeine, with a direct improvement in performance. (Source: Caffeine and Sports Performance). While the studies are often unique to each individual, I’ve found that keeping my caffeine intake at a constant (approximately 60 mg per hour) helps ensure that I’m not crashing and feel a bit sharper as the miles add up. Futhermore, I’ve found bigger caffeinated effects if I avoid it for 72 hours before race day, cutting intake by half each day leading up to the race. Yes, my love for pre-workout coffee is real, and race week is tough because I actually taper off caffeine so that race day will pack a bigger caffeinated feel when I drink up pre-race.

More on that below.


My Personal Pre-Workout Caffeine Protocol

Each and every day outside of race week starts with espresso—freshly ground and made with my espresso machine. I’m not one to sip on a double shot in a tiny cup like the Italians. I prefer an Americano or a double shot of espresso with a bit of hot water. I also add a one-second pour of cold, unsweetened almond milk so I can immediately enjoy. So, I have one Americano pre-workout; usually, it’s all I drink before any morning session. The only time I’ll have breakfast is if I’m about to take on a very long ride. Otherwise, I swim and run fasted. My bottles sometimes have caffeine in them for longer rides, but it’s a very small amount (around 50 mg per bottle). I also do my best to refrain from caffeinated gels during most sessions unless I have a very long run off of the bike. After my AM session, I’ll have another cup or a latte, but my entire coffee intake is complete before 1 pm. I don’t drink sodas or anything else besides decaf tea and sparkling water for the rest of the day. If I were to take too much caffeine in the AM or anything in the PM, I find that my sleep is less sound.

Race week is different. My biggest goal is to avoid being numb to the amazing effects caffeine can bring to my performance—even the recovery it brings after a hard AM session. To capitalize on the boosted effects of pre-workout caffeine on race day, I usually swap coffee for green tea the week prior. Since I really don’t consume insane amounts of caffeine, I don’t experience withdrawal during this process. Then on race day, I get an incredible energy boost without consuming insane amounts of caffeine to chase that “high” that could have the opposite effect on my performance.

My Race Day Caffeine Protocol for 70.3 Distance:

  • 60’ before race start - Double Espresso ~80mg
  • 15’ pre-race ~ 30mg Gel
  • Bike Mix contains ~120 mg caffeine— over 2 bottles
  • Run is variable depending on how I feel but usually ~ 30mg per 45 min

Realistically, you should be testing your caffeine limits during your “big days” and even be practicing your caffeine/coffee taper during the week. Otherwise, you could be missing out on the wide range of awesome benefits that could improve your race.  I strongly emphasize, however, that you MUST TEST your caffeine intake during training to ensure you aren’t stopping at every porta-potty during the race.


A Word on Coffee Varieties

Caffeine is like the most widely used drug and performance enhancer around, so it’s important the quality is high as well as the consumer's education on the product. As with everything, get involved in what you put into your body and ensure you use caffeine as a tool, not a crutch!  

When it comes to the type of coffee bean you may encounter, we are all more than familiar with the Arabica type, as it’s a staple buzzword to help sell coffee. The truth is, all beans can be equally good and bad. It’s estimated that over 60 percent of the world's coffee is Arabica. The other three types of coffee bean are Robusta, Liberica, Excelsa. The durable and disease-tolerant Robusta is the most widely farmed type of bean. Robusta, much like its name, also has more caffeine than the more fragile Arabica bean, which is partly due to its tolerance to bacteria. The type of coffee you like, where it’s grown and at what altitude do matter. So you should research your preferred coffee company, and find out what type of bean, which geographic location and even which farmer produces your coffee. Be aware of mold toxins and very old beans; this will likely diminish the quality of your drink. It also means instead of drinking 6 cups of terrible coffee from the drip filter at work that has been coagulating for hours, you bring your own personally ground coffee and brew method, whether it be immersion (French Press, Aero Press), Infusion (Chemex, Hario, V60 and Drip Coffee) or Espresso (either a Semi-automatic or Automatic Machine brewed with pressure).



Currently, I’m loving beans from a company called Onyx, but let’s face it, the brewing method and equipment is equally important. I’m not rich enough to afford the Rocket Espresso grinder and V60 Semi-automatic espresso machine, but I can dream. I’m currently rocking a Breville dual boiler and smart grinder. However, when I travel, I either use an Aero Press, Mocha Pot or single-serve Nespresso pump. Of course, this means I also bring along a portable electric kettle too and always use filtered water. I’ve gotten away from traveling with my own coffee grinder though, usually grinding beans for the week at a local shop. I even went as far as a hand grinder.

In the following video, I demonstrate how I make the most of my coffee experience while traveling, as well as on normal days at home.



Woolf, K., Bidwell, W. K., & Carlson, A. G. (2009). EFFECT OF CAFFEINE AS AN ERGOGENIC AID DURING ANAEROBIC EXERCISE PERFORMANCE IN CAFFEINE NAÏVE COLLEGIATE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(5), 1363-9.

Clever Training Ambassador Nicholas Chase is a Professional Triathlete, USA Triathlon Certified Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach, ISSA Elite Trainer and Co-Owns TRIBAL Multi-Sport. Working with athletes around the world under the TRIBAL umbrella means exploring all training modalities. Nicholas spends his season training and racing around the world while working with athletes hoping to reach world championship races in each race distance.



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