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Grab A Cuppa Joe: Caffeine Eases Pain of Exercise

By L. K. Regan

Many people concerned with health and fitness are on a constant campaign to quit caffeine. If you've had that struggle, maybe you should go back to the habit. A study published in the April edition of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism and led by University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Robert Motl indicates that caffeine lessens the pain associated with vigorous exercise. Furthermore, this effect holds for the caffeine addict and the ingenue alike. Anyone for a cuppa joe?

The study tested 25 active college-aged men, divided into two groups. One group were caffeine regulars, who consumed an average of the caffeine-equivalent of three to four cups of coffee per day; the other group had no or next to no caffeine consumption. The subjects were given a baseline reading on a stationary bicycle for their aerobic capabilities, and then were brought back for two high-intensity, 30-minute cycling workouts. But here's the twist: an hour before each of those workouts, the cyclists were given a pill. For one session the pill contained caffeine; for the other a placebo was administered. Then, the cyclists got down to peddling, with measurements taken regularly of their perception of their quadriceps pain as well as their oxygen consumption, heart rate and work rate. The result: caffeine reduced quad pain during exercise more than did the placebo. But here's the kicker— it did so for both groups, the hardened caffeine-crowd and the coffee-newbies.

This fact was quite surprising to Dr. Motl. "This study looks at the effects of caffeine on muscle pain during high-intensity exercise as a function of habitual caffeine use," he said. "No one has examined that before. What we saw is something we didn't expect: caffeine-naïve individuals and habitual users have the same amount of reduction in pain during exercise after caffeine (consumption)." Ok, but why? Actually, Motl doesn't know. "What's interesting," he told the press, "is that when we found that caffeine tolerance doesn't matter, we were perplexed at first. Then we looked at reviews of the literature relative to caffeine and tolerance effects across a variety of other stimuli. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don't. That is, sometimes regular caffeine use is associated with a smaller response, whereas, other times, it's not."

Why should we care about this tolerance question? The elephant in the room is clearly sports performance. As Motl acknowledges, "We've shown that caffeine reduces pain reliably, consistently during cycling, across different intensities, across different people, different characteristics. But does that reduction in pain translate into an improvement in sport performance?" In other words, if you drop a little caffeine right before a race, can you get that edge? And could you routinely train on caffeine to help push your limits, since tolerance doesn't seem to be a factor? Motl doesn't say so—but he comes near to it by himself implying that caffeine may help people push past pain limits. "One of the things that may be a practical application," he says, "is if you go to the gym and you exercise and it hurts, you may be prone to stop doing that because pain is an aversive stimulus that tells you to withdraw. So if we could give people a little caffeine and reduce the amount of pain they're experiencing, maybe that would help them stick with that exercise."

That's fine for the amateur athlete, but what about the elite competitor? Until 2004, the International Olympic Committee had caffeine as a banned substance, testing for a level equivalent to a few cups of coffee right before a competition. In time for the Beijing Olympics that policy was reversed. Caffeine is still on notice—the drug monitors still test for it, and will consider reinstating the ban if they see evidence of caffeine being abused. As yet the jury is still out on caffeine's potential for athletes. But if Dr. Motl's research is right, for the amateur athlete a cup of coffee before a workout might help ease the pain of working out.