Coffee and Exercise: How to Use Coffee to Benefit Your Training

Coffee. It’s one of our greatest sources of antioxidants these days. The lighter the roast, the higher the antioxidant level. Even better is the growing body of research suggesting that people who drink coffee have decreased risk for depression and various diseases including Alzheimers, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and some types of cancers.  In fact, it even looks like more is better when it comes to coffee……unless we happen to be talking about exercise and training.


Coffee can make or break your efforts in the box or at the gym. It can supercharge your training goals, or it can curtail your efforts altogether. The key is in the timing.

Drinking coffee before training is highly beneficial for several reasons.  Ample amounts of caffeine ingested before lifting makes us more likely to self select heavier weights.  Coffee also has a thermogenic effect, which helps our body access fat storages for energy during training.  This is basic stuff that you may already know, but things get fascinating when we dig beneath the surface and look at the cellular pathways responsible for muscle repair, growth, and strength gains.

Coffee suppresses a growth factor called mTOR (mammalian target of rapomycin), the gene associated with cellular metabolism, growth, survival, and even longevity.  Some research has correlated disrupted mTOR pathways with certain types of advanced cancers and kidney disease.  In fact, disrupted mTOR has been clearly correlated with an advanced form of prostate cancer.

The process of turning mTOR off and on is a bit complex because conditions have to be just right.  This pathway responds to hormones, growth factors, nutrients, energy, and stress signals. Proper levels of human growth hormone (HGH), adequate amino acid levels, and hormones have to be present in order for mTOR to be activated. If the body is faced with any form of stressor, the body suppresses mTOR.  This deactivation lies the heart of the reason that we do not grow during training.  Muscle repair, recovery, progress, and strength gains occur after your workout ends, but only under the right conditions.  (By the way, this is one of the reasons that exercise is an excellent metaphor for life.  When faced with a stressor, we experience growth during the recovery from that stressor.)


Exercise is a form of physical stress, which is why the body naturally suppresses mTOR during training.  When your training stops, the recovery and repair process starts.  Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and other growth factors are released. The more intense your training is, the greater the levels of HGH and other growth factors which reactivate mTOR.  If the right conditions are present (adequate hormonal levels, amino acid availability, lower stress hormones), then the body reactivates the mTOR pathway. Once this occurs, protein synthesis is underway and muscle repairs begin.  This is when you actually make progress from your training sessions.
After training, coffee is your kryptonite.  It naturally suppresses mTOR just as exercise does. Drinking coffee during this recovery time frame will result in the continued suppression of mTOR after training.  Your body will be unable to turn on the cellular pathway necessary for muscle repair and strength gains.  No mTOR reactivation=no protein synthesis=no cellular growth=poor muscle repair=slower recovery=little to no strength gain.  You get it, right?


So….how long should we wait after training to drink coffee again?  The specific time frame for this recovery window is relatively unclear, and I can find no definitive research to answer this question.  My guess is this:  the more intense your training, the longer you should wait to drink coffee again.  For example:  if I WOD with my usual weight at a very high intensity, then I can expect to be flat on my back at the end of it, but not usually sore the next day.  Maybe I’ll visit my local barista that afternoon because I’m not expecting strength gains from that workout.  On the other hand, let’s say we do a max effort day or a heavier WOD wherein I dread the pain I might experience the next morning.  In that case, I’ll probably skip my afternoon Trenta.  I would expect strength gains to occur after that WOD and would want to maximize my recovery time skipping coffee. This is my logical guess based on my own personal science, but it would be better to have research answer this question.

The bottom line is this: coffee before, none after.

Think about this for a second.  If exercise and caffeine are stressors which interrupt and suppress the mTOR pathway, how does emotional stress affect that same pathway?  Stress is stress.  The body knows no differently.  I would venture to think that sleep deprivation, chronic emotional stress, alcohol and substances, nicotine, and poor nutrition must play a big role in the dysregulation of mTOR as well.  Voila, we come full circle.  Stress.  Terrible foods.  Poor Recovery.  Diseases.  Believe me, it’s hard for me to skip my afternoon coffee sometimes, but I quite like my mTOR for so many reasons.

That’s all from Lighthouse Point today, folks.  Train hard, sleep tight, recovery right.  Let’s talk about the winning combo of coffee and grass fed butter prior to training soon.  Butter, you ask? Yes, butter. Ciao!