How to Maximize the Benefits of Your Coffee

So many of us love our daily coffee fix. But whether we drink coffee for the taste or out of habit, many don’t fully realize the benefits coffee can have for performance - not just mental, but physical too.

Understanding how coffee (specifically, caffeine) works and how the body reacts to it allows you to use it as a tool to boost performance, such as getting more out of your workouts. Read on as we explain the benefits - and downsides - of caffeine for performance, before giving you some actionable tips to make caffeine work to your benefit.

How Caffeine Works in the Brain and Body

To make it clear, when we’re talking about the benefits of coffee for performance, we’re primarily talking about caffeine. It just so happens that coffee is the delivery method for caffeine for most of us.

When we ingest caffeine, it stimulates a reaction in several areas of the brain, increasing the levels of certain substances called “neuromodulators”, which include dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine.

It’s these neuromodulators that lead to positive effects, and potential side-effects if we use caffeine the wrong way.

How Does Caffeine Benefit Performance?

Let’s put the effects of caffeine in plain english and discuss how caffeine can improve performance.

Increases Alertness, Motivation and Drive

The main benefit you’ll notice from caffeine is an increase in mental performance, specifically an increased feeling of alertness, motivation and drive.

This is due to how caffeine impacts the production and reception of certain substances in the brain, as we mentioned earlier, specifically dopamine and adenosine.

Caffeine increases dopamine levels, which affects the brain’s “reward pathways”, making us feel more motivated and driven.

At the same time, it blocks the reception of adenosine in the brain. Adenosine is an inhibitory neuromodulator which has depressive effects. Adenosine naturally builds up over the course of the day, making us feel more sleepy and less alert as adenosine levels grow.

By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine works against those effects, generally making you feel more awake and alert.

Caffeine Boosts Adrenaline

Caffeine also increases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline. Noradrenaline and adrenaline are very similar substances, and work in harmony with each other.

Higher levels of noradrenaline and adrenaline can have positive effects on physical and mental performance. These chemicals stimulate the body’s “fight or flight” response, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, alertness and attention, all of which you can use to your advantage.

Caffeine Improves Reaction Time and Coordination

A number of studies have found that caffeine improves (reduces) reaction time. This is due to certain neuroprotective effects from caffeine, and how it increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain.

This means drinking coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) can lower the time it takes to recall information, to react physically and mentally, and also increase motor skills and coordination.

It May Improve Endurance and Athletic Performance

Caffeine has also been shown to reduce fatigue and improve endurance. This has been shown in multiple studies. In one study, cyclists’ time to exhaustion was improved by 12%, while another indicated potential improvement in power output and performance in a time-trial exercise.

Downsides/Side Effects of Coffee and Caffeine

Getting optimal results from coffee and caffeine means minimizing the negative effects as much as amplifying the positive. For that, we need to understand the potential downsides it can have on our body/performance. Here are the major ones to look out for:


Caffeine can have detrimental effects on sleep if taken too much or at the wrong time.

The mental effects discussed earlier can be a positive at some times and a negative at others. It makes sense - increased alertness is desirable during the day, but you don’t want the same feeling when you’re trying to get to sleep.

The negative implications for sleep are also due to caffeine’s effect on adenosine, again mentioned earlier as a potential benefit. Adenosine makes you feel sleepy, as well as supporting the quality of sleep.

Caffeine can stay in your system for a long time - anywhere from 5 to 12 hours. If it’s still present when you’re trying to go to sleep, the production of adenosine can be affected and you’ll have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep and getting deep, quality sleep.

Jitters, Anxiety and Irritability

Neurological substances like dopamine and norepinephrine have positive effects in the right amounts, but if they get too high, we can experience negative effects, including jitters, anxiety and irritability.

This generally occurs if we ingest too much caffeine. “Too much” can be different for each person - some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others and thus their upper threshold for caffeine intake will be lower.

Heart Conditions

Increased levels of norepinephrine and adrenaline, again, can be beneficial in the right amounts but detrimental in excess. The increased heart rate and blood pressure improves our physical ability short-term, but if pushed too much or maintained for too long, it can be harmful.

This is particularly true for anyone with existing heart conditions or cardiovascular issues, such as hypertension.

Stomach Discomfort

Caffeine (coffee especially) can also cause stomach issues, by increasing the levels of stomach acid in the gastrointestinal tract. For some, this just makes their daily number 2 smoother. For others, or when taken in excess, coffee can cause real abdominal discomfort.

How to Drink Coffee for Optimal Physical and Mental Performance

Coffee can have some awesome benefits if used right. Whether you’re looking for a tool to boost performance, or just want to enjoy your coffee fix without any of the downsides, here are some tips to take on board.

Optimize Your Dosage

Most of the positive effects of coffee become negatives if you take too much. So you want to find the “goldilocks range” for your caffeine dose - not too little, not too much, but just right.

The optimal dosage for most people is between 1-3 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. So for a 70 kg (155 lb) person, 70 to 210 grams of caffeine is best.

An average cup of coffee tends to contain around 70-140 mg of caffeine, although some products may contain more.

If you’re just picking up coffee, start on the lower end of this range. Be aware that your body will also become adapted to caffeine over time, so the more you usually take, the higher the dose you’ll need to feel the effects.

Avoid Coffee (and All Caffeine) After Midday

The most common side-effect of caffeine, as discussed, is trouble sleeping. Caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours, which means the length of time it takes for it to be processed and expelled from your system.

Yet some amount of caffeine may remain in the body for as long as 12 hours. If you still have caffeine present in your body when you go to sleep, you may find it harder to get to sleep, as well as experiencing lower-quality sleep after you drift off.

The key to this is to avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Many will tell you to avoid caffeine after 2pm, but depending on your metabolism and the time you generally go to bed, some may want to make this cut-off point even earlier.

Delay Your Caffeine Intake After Waking Up

Some experts (Stanford professor Andrew Huberman has spoken about this at length) recommend delaying caffeine intake for 90 to 120 minutes after waking up.

This is again due to the interaction between caffeine and adenosine. Adenosine builds up as we are awake, and is at its lowest level just after waking up.

Caffeine boosts alertness by blocking adenosine. However when you block adenosine early in the day, right after waking up, adenosine slowly builds up in the background, eventually breaking through when the effects of caffeine wear off around mid-afternoon.

This causes the mid-afternoon “crash” many people experience - a large burst of sleepiness and fatigue. You can avoid this by simply delaying caffeine intake, letting your body naturally clear out any excess adenosine, before you take your morning coffee.

Taking Coffee as a Pre-Workout

Most of caffeine’s effects kick in within 30 minutes to an hour, and last a few hours at most. So if you want these positive effects to help you in the gym, you’ll want to take it as a pre-workout.

This is really only worth it if you can work out earlier in the day. If you tend to work out at night, coffee as a pre-workout isn’t a great idea, as it can damage the quality of your sleep (consider a stim-free pre-workout supplement instead).

However, if you can schedule your workouts in the morning, coffee makes a great pre-workout, giving you the focus, drive, coordination and fast reactions you need to nail quality reps every time.

Only Consume Coffee Every Other Day

If you want to take coffee as a pre-workout and really maximize the benefits, the “every other day” strategy can be a good idea.

We build up a tolerance for caffeine over time, so when we have coffee every day, it takes more to feel the same effects.

Taking caffeine only every other day (and timing it with your workout days) can avoid building up this tolerance, and thus amplify the positive effects when you do take it prior to your workout.

Final Thoughts: Coffee as a Tool for Performance

Coffee is not just a great pairing with your breakfast, it’s also a powerful tool for performance when used right.

Coffee can help you be more alert, more motivated and sharper mentally, and can even boost your physical output, which is great news if you want a pre-workout kick without the risk of artificial and/or harmful additives a lot of pre-workout supplements contain.

The key is just to use it the right way. Research has given us incredible insight into the way caffeine works in the brain, and the different compounds that are increased or inhibited when we drink a caffeinated cup of coffee. Use these insights to drink coffee at the right time to maximize the benefits and reduce the unwanted side-effects.