The Ultimate Guide to Caffeine

90% of Americans consume caffeine daily, and eight out of ten drink coffee. (100% of lego men drink coffee).

If you spend all day at a desk job, I’m going to guess you make a few trips to the break room for a cup of joe every day to stay get through the day.  Is this okay? Or should caffeine should be avoided?  

Caffeine, like the Master Sword or Mario’s star power, can be a great tool when used properly to help you slay your next dragon.

However, caffeine is kind of like getting a green shell in Mario Kart – it’s readily available, can certainly help you win, but has to be used properly or it can end up doing more harm than good.

Fortunately for you, we’ve done all the research so you don’t have to.

Today, you will learn how to properly wield the power of caffeine!

(cue the Zelda treasure box opening music)
 

How caffeine works

SuperBrain Caffine Fly

Meet Superbrain. Superbrain can do amazing things like help us become a productivity ninjamaster habit changerun longerand lift heavier.

However, as we work all day long, a chemical called adenosine builds up and binds to receptors in our brains, and we get tired.  Adenosine is Superbrain’s personal Kryptonite. See exhibit B (below)

SuperBrain Kryptonite Caffeine

Fortunately, this is normally where Superbrain’s pal caffeine saves the day. Caffeine blocks the adenosine from binding to receptors, and Superbrain is free from any groggy and debilitating effects. Essentially, it’s like encasing adenosine in a lead, kryptonite-proof box.

SuperBrain LeadBox Caffeine

But wait! There’s more.

Now that the bad stuff is blocked from slowing down your brain, your neurons start firing faster, freeing up your brain to work overtime. Now that your brain is working extra hard, it thinks something REALLY important must be going on outside…so it releases adrenaline and dopamine.

These two chemicals can help Superbrain dominate, including kicking the crap out of this ferocious T-rex.

SuperBrain Trex Fight

Coffee, Tea, and Calories

Let’s say you just finished a one-mile run, and burning roughly around 100 calories. So you decide to reward yourself for being healthy by popping into your into Starbucks and grab your favorite orange mochafrappachino. Unfortunately, you just consumed 500 calories after burning only 100….which means after pushing hard to run a mile and then sipping on a cool drink, you’re now 400 calories worse off than if you had decided to just sit on the couch and skip the drink.

SUCK!

Now, while undoubtedly delicious, a few smarter drink choices can dramatically improve your progress.

Take a look at this chart below tracking calories vs caffeine (click for larger view):

Be aware of your caffeinated drink choices – Stick to black coffee, espresso, or tea (especially green!) if weight loss is your primary goal. You may even notice that caffeine from an espresso shot hits your body differently than with an equivalent amount of tea or black coffee.

Know what you are drinking – A few hundred calories of espresso and milk is very different than chocolate syrup and flavoring.  Not all calories are created equal.

If you plan to wield caffeine like the Hammer of Thor, you need to have a rough understanding of the calories and caffeine in each drink. If you opt for a fancier coffee drink, you need to know what you are drinking or you could end up sipping on a 500+ calorie beverage.

Now that you’re avoiding the Triple Chocolate Whip Cream Frappuccino, let’s talk about how much caffeine you should drink!

How much caffeine is the right amount?

Roasted coffee bean in palm of hand

If used properly, caffeine can help you muster the motivation to never miss a workout, energize your routine, and kick-start your metabolism.

When used improperly, a caffeine addiction can drag down your energy levels all day, and you’ll end up consuming more calories than you burned.

So let’s figure out the correct amount.  The average American consumes around 250 mg of caffeine per day. That’s about two small cups of coffee, or 3 (.33, repeating of course) shots of espresso. Note: The average cup of coffee can vary GREATLY in caffeine content. Some coffee shops may be brewing coffee at 100 mg per cup, while others…cough, Starbucks…can exceed 300 mgs per cup. Check out EnergyFiend for details.

To get the best of both worlds, you want to consume as little caffeine as possible, while still receiving the benefits of the caffeine boost. You don’t need to drink an extra large coffee to get the benefits of caffeine. Especially if you haven’t yet built up a tolerance, you’ll be able to get a full boost from a very small amount.

  • On the low end, take your body weight (in pounds) and divide by two. Drink that number in mgs of caffeine. If you live elsewhere, consume 1 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight.
  • On the high end, take that number and multiply by 5. You should never need to exceed this amount in a single day. If you do, you will probably experience diminishing returns. Or worse, the coffee could be negatively affecting you, causing things like restlessness, irritability, sleep problems, or an upset stomach.

Start on the low end, and work your way up until you notice that caffeine boost. If you are wired with a single small cup of coffee, stop. When you opt for the extra large unnecessarily, you train your body to need an extra large.

Weight and body composition aside, caffeine affects everyone differently. Listen to your body, and learn from it.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Caffeine and Working Out

Lego Lifting Dumbbell

You name it, caffeine can potentially improve it: endurance, strength, concentration, creativity…even your metabolism. Caffeine can be like real-world NZT. It works both physically and psychologically, though everybody reacts to it differently.

  • In one study, subjects who consumed coffee performed significantly better when performing the deadlift, bench press, and squat.
  • If cycling or running is your thing, another study found caffeine improved endurance.
  • It even has been shown to reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

In fact, 3 out of 4 Olympic athletes have caffeine before their competitions.

Our advice, try it out. If it works for you, run with it…but don’t use it all day, every day, or you’ll stop seeing its effects. If not used in moderation, it can become just another hurdle.

Here are some tips to optimize get the most of out caffeine as a workout tool:

  • Work out about an hour after consuming caffeine: Although caffeine has a half-life of about five hours, you’ll likely notice a drop in energy before then.
  • Drink plenty of water: Caffeine works best when your body is fully hydrated and prepared for a jolt. Make sure you’ve had plenty of water before you drink that coffee to ensure you receive the best kick.
  • Use caffeine more sparingly: Instead of using it as a regular crutch, try using it only when needed. When you’re having a rough morning or you know you’ve been stalling in your workouts, activate your secret power-up to push forward and level up.
  • Eat something substantial: If you’ve ever gotten a weird reaction when drinking coffee (first try consuming less), eat something substantial before you pop by the café.

Addiction

Passed out on table with coffee mug

Whether we’re talking about World of Warcraft, Minecraft, alcohol, or coffee, addiction can be crippling (note: addictions to Nerd Fitness are okay).  As you progress as a coffee drinker and outpace your tolerance, you may feel inclined to drink slightly more each week to keep up that buzz.

When dealing with this dilemma, you have a few options:

Maintain a steady routine: Don’t increase the size or the amount of cups you drink each week. Instead, simply maintain a moderate amount of caffeine consumption, such as a small cup of coffee in the morning, or a cup of tea twice a day. This keeps your addiction in check, and once you develop the habit, it’s an easy thing to stick to. If you enjoy tea and coffee as beverages (not because you NEED the caffeine), this option is tough to beat. The drawback? As you get used to the amount of caffeine, you won’t receive nearly the same benefit as you did initially.

Don’t consume caffeine regularly: Don’t let your body establish a tolerance. Try only consuming caffeine once or twice a week when you need it most. You’ll certainly get a much bigger kick when you DO decide use that power-up. The drawback? You don’t get to drink coffee or tea regularly 🙂

Push the Reset Button: Start with a very moderate amount of caffeine (a cup of tea), and increase every other week or month, as you require more caffeine to get the same kick. Once you reach your tipping point (ideally BEFORE you’re drinking coffee like water), reset your caffeine tolerance and start over. Fortunately, it only takes seven days for your caffeine tolerance to completely reset. How?

  • Go cold turkey: Tough out a few mornings of moderate headaches, and in only a week you’ll be back to enjoying caffeine like you’ve never had it before! Depending on how much you’re drinking, this can be fairly easy or incredibly difficult.
  • The two-week reset: Say you’re drinking 600 mgs of caffeine (three 200 mg cups of coffee). On day 1, have only two cups. On day 7, cut to only one. At the end of the two weeks cut to only a cup of tea, or go without caffeine completely.
  • The sloowww recovery: If you’re drinking several large cups of coffee a day, you may need to resort to the slow recovery. Don’t cut anything too drastic at once, as you may be in store for some unbearable and unproductive days. Instead, cut very slowly. Not a cup at a time, but maybe order that last coffee as a medium, not a large. Slow and steady. This may be the only option for those of you who are dependent on coffee, or can’t afford to have a few days of sluggishness and discomfort.

If you’re running a race or competing in any fitness event, I recommend you reset your tolerance at least partly beforehand. Studies have shown that regular coffee drinkers with a very high tolerance received less of a single use benefit than those who were not regularly jacked up on the java juice.

No matter which route you take, simply being aware of your caffeinated decisions can go a long way.

What about energy drinks?

Ahhhh, yes…the 6000 pound elephant (with wings) in the room: energy drinks!

Sure, Red Bull is a hell of a marketer.  In fact, I happen to LOVE Redbull’s marketing, because they produce incredibly inspirational videos that make you want to run through brick walls.

Other than Red Bull, we have Monster Energy, N-OS Energy, 5-Hour Energy, crack cocaine (kidding), and more.  Are these drinks good or bad for you?

In this nerd’s humble opinion, I’d say they’re not worth the hassle:

  • They aren’t regulated by the FDA, which means they tend to have an excessive amount of caffeine.
  • They tend to have way too much sugar and other chemicals and additives.  Sugar is the enemy, and these drinks have a tremendous amount of it.
  • Beverages like 5-Hour Energy are essentially shots of caffeine that can be consumed in one gulp.  For the unsuspecting, this can lead to over-consumption and addiction.  On top of that, 5-Hour Energy has been linked to some not so great press lately.

Again, if you need your caffeine, we recommend getting it from coffee, espresso, or green tea.  If you ARE going to consume these drinks, go with the sugar-free versions that don’t have aspartame (which is in both Diet Coke and Diet Red Bull).  And please don’t mix energy drinks and alcohol – that really messes with your heart and brain.  Make better decisions when out drinking.

Susan Lacke over at No Meat Athlete has a fantastic write-up on energy drinks that’s worth the read.

Get wired and level up

 Get out there, grab a cup of joe, and keep leveling up!

As you begin to master your routine and caffeine, try some of these advanced tricks:

  • Take a caffeine nap.
  • Invest in a coffee maker can be set to automatically brew coffee as you wake up.
  • Save extra coffee or espresso from the day before in the fridge, and make iced coffee the next day.
  • Skip the coffee shop. There’s no need to spent $5 every day on coffee, even if you prefer espresso over black coffee. For under $30, pick up a stovetop espresso maker such as this one (aff. link), or if you really want to geek out about your coffee, experiment with the Aero Press (aff. link).

What’s your caffeine routine?

What other tricks do you have to share with the Rebellion?

-Taylor

PS from Steve – Congrats to Tim Ferriss for putting out his latest masterpiece today, The Four Hour Chef (aff. link)! I have the book in my hands right now (seriously, I’m holding the book in one hand while typing with the other) and it’s MASSIVE – over 600 pages and full of high-quality photos and recipes and stories.  It’s a book about cooking for people who hate to cook or don’t know how.  Sound like anybody you know? Hmmm?

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photo source: red bull, lego coffee, lego man and coffee

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120 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Caffeine

  1. I was considering adding some information in the article about this, but thought it was a bit too complex 🙂 — If you have any interesting sources on it, shoot me an email at Taylor@NerdFitness.com. I’d always interested in digging deeper into coffe 😀

  2. In terms of caffeine intake, 9 cups of tea a day isn’t an extreme amount (though it is on the high end). It certainly isn’t dangerous — it’s hard to reach dangerous levels of caffeine consumption. As your body adapts you feel the need to drink more and more. So generally most people aren’t going to be drinking wayyy more caffeine than they can handle. That said, I do advocate staying in your “range” — the range I described in the article. This is because you can receive the same benefit (or very similar) from 100mg of caffeine as from 300 or 600. It all depends on your body’s current tolerance (and well, personal relationship with caffeine). You may find you are actually more productive if you scale back to half the amount.

  3. Caffeine isn’t bad for you! There is a huge body of research that says the opposite (although I’m sure we will debate this point until the end of time). Keep caffeine intake moderate, then profit!

  4. I had to google it. Generally though, if it’s a supplement or energy drink, our policy will be to recommend you keep it simple: tea, espresso, or coffee. No need to fuss around with what could be in product x or what product y could be doing to your _____.

  5. Thanks Taylor, I’m inspired to keep experimenting with green/herbal varieties to stay within a healthy overall caffeine range. Loving berry teas in the afternoon right now. I think half my relationship with tea is caffeine dependence and half of it is a psychological need for comfort from a hot mug of goodness, especially as winter hits. (And like many British people I’m socially conditioned to see another cup of tea as the answer to any stress I encounter throughout my day!) Maybe once I’ve got my caffeine intake within a lower range, I’ll be able to actually use it in a targeted way to enhance my workout energy levels (which had never even occurred to me before reading this article as tea is just something I drink all day). Great article and lots of info to consider!

  6. I don’t drink coffee, tea or any of the beverages on that chart. Are there any benefits to starting? Will my workouts be more effective? I found out that I have a very low tolerance to caffeine after trying an espresso in Italy.

  7. It’s my first time in this Blog. And I can’t tell how much I’m amused by the way you guys explain everything about everything. The details and the “nerd” way of explaining are just Stunning! Makes us go nonstop reading. And definitely clears out a lot of doubts that we have.

    Keep up the awesome job and for sure you guys are changing lives here with this teaching “explaining ” method.

    Congratulations!

  8. Always start my day with a Bulletproof Coffee. Seems to stop my cravings for sweet stuff.
    Have Lost 18kg since Easter. Body weight workout helped too! 😉

  9. I love the taste of a full bodied large flat white at my local cafe. It used to be m favourite time of day. I went cold turkey on July 22nd 2013 when I started paleo 100%. I am now 48 days caffeine free and I feel good, however I miss this daily experience. I never felt it was an addiction, just a ritual I truly enjoy. I live in Sydney, it’s what people do here and my dilemma is …… should I continue to deny myself this pleasure?

  10. I agree with what you say – using caffeine occasionally like a Mario’s star, is the way to go. I used to drink it everyday because it’s “normal”, but you soon get hooked and can’t function without it. It’s the same type of addiction like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

    I cut out coffee from my routine completely and after adjusting, I feel more alert and awake without it. You know what scene from Limitless where everything snaps into focus and becomes colorful? That’s like it was for me after quitting coffee. Amazing.

  11. I have imported Swiss Alp Water from Europe. 125mg of Caffeine for 500ml of water. No other additives. I drink half a bottle pre-workout, re-fill with cold water and finish during. Brand is called L1quid.

  12. Love your work Steve! Would it be too much trouble to ask for a link correction? We rebranded from energy fiend to Caffeine Informer a while back. If you could update the the text and url that would be awesome. In the url just replace energyfiend with caffeineinformer and it will be sweet. Thanks in advance!

  13. 1-2 cups of coffee every morning and sometimes a cup of tea (Earl Grey. Hot.) in the afternoon. Love both coffee and tea but if I have more than that I have a full on panic attack. This seems to be my sweet spot.

  14. Caffeine is said to be good for cleansing the livers of people with liver disease. Seems this article didn’t even mention the liver…

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  18. Coming from a die-hard coffee lover: Caffeine, man. The only drug about which you can publish a guide on how not to stay *too* addicted to it.

    I love coffee, but caffeine wrecks my body in ways I never noticed until I quit. Now I still have it occasionally because it’s delightful, but damn – I had no idea.

  19. What about consuming caffeine after breakfast? Would this effect your workout or nutrient absorption?

  20. First off, loved the article. It is very informative.
    I have been experimenting with caffeine as a part of my diet for a while now, and there are multiple factors that I am curious about. I have been following a 20/4 IF program where I don’t eat when I’m at work. I drink close to a gallon of water every day (I weigh about 240 lbs). My caffeine comes from a BANG energy drink which contains about 300mg of caffeine, no sugar, creatine, and BCAA’s. I drink about half of it as a pre-workout, and then I sip on the rest throughout my 10 hour work day to help curb hunger. I only consume caffeine on the days I work (Monday through Thursday) and take a break on the weekends. So far it has worked really well for me, but I’d like to hear what others have to say. Thanks!

  21. Great article. I love coffee, but I am very much in the moderation camp. For me, it’s been more of a social drink while out, while at home I drink mostly water and the odd cup of tea (mostly in the morning).

    I’ve never been one to get the “coffee buzz”, and an evening tea or coffee never seemed to affect my sleep, but I have found that a well timed coffee can improve my focus in sporting activities – I nailed a 400m hurdles the other day, a few hours after a late morning coffee.

  22. Love the article; super informative. I really like coffee, but I drink it more for the flavor and the warmth rather than caffeine. I’ll have one cup in the morning while I’m day trading, with a small cup of green or herbal tea in the afternoon, but only if 1) my morning joe was a small cup and 2) I really, really absolutely need the pick-me-up. I only drink coffee after my morning shower so I’m not relying on it first thing in the morning and my coffee maker makes a max of 14oz, which is really helpful.

    I have a few friends (all of us are in college) who literally drink an entire 12 CUP pot of coffee before class and then hit Starbucks on the way home. It’s absolutely insane. A few of them have asked me how I drink only one cup and I always tell them the same thing: invest in a french press or single-serve machine and quit going to Starbucks. If you have to go to a coffee shop, get a small or just plain coffee with maybe a little cream/sugar. No syrups because I’m honestly a little scared of what’s in them.

    Thanks for the article!

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