Authors of the study, featured in the latest issue of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, took 24 college-age men with what was considered “above average” fitness levels. The men were divided into two groups—those with a low caffeine intake (less than 100 milligrams per day, or 1 cup of coffee) and those with a high caffeine intake (400 mg per day, equivalent to just over 4 cups of coffee). One hour prior to each of two exercise sessions, the men were given either a pill containing the amount of caffeine found in 2½ to 3 cups of coffee, or a caffeine-free placebo. They then exercised on stationary bikes for 30 minutes while rating their pain verbally on a scale of 0 to 10. Both the low-caffeine users and the high-caffeine users who took caffeine before exercising experienced much lower levels of pain during their workouts. The researchers theorize that caffeine blocks the ability of some nerve endings to transmit pain signals to the brain.
WHAT IT MEANS: Caffeine is a widely available, legal drug that could take the edge off of muscle pain that’s keeping you from exercising. “It hurts when you go exercise for the first time,” says Steven Broglio, PhD, professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and one of the study’s authors. “Here’s something that is everywhere in society, and for people who are averse to exercise, it may benefit them.”
Need some help getting through a tough workout? Here are some ways to cut down on pain with the help of caffeine:
• Drink up an hour before you exercise. This study and others like it have found that an hour’s lead time will give you the most benefit.
• Drink enough for your body weight. In this study, researchers gave the participants 5 mg of caffeine for each kilogram of body weight. For example, a 160-pound person would need to drink three to four 8-ounce cups of coffee. If that seems like a lot, you could try a lesser amount; lower doses might help with muscle pain, but they haven’t yet been studied.
• Be eco-minded about what you drink. To minimize the impact of coffee growth on the planet, shop for coffees (or teas, if they’re your preferred caffeine source) certified as Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or Bird-Friendly.
• Know that caffeine’s not for everybody. Some people react badly to caffeine, especially those with anxiety, high blood pressure, and certain cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems. If the amounts given are more caffeine than you’re used to, try smaller doses first.
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