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Strategically Using Coffee to Enhance Cognitive and Endurance Performance

I love coffee. I love the taste, the smell, the effects, the intricacies of different regions/roasts, and the shops that serve it. If I had to give up either coffee or alcohol for the rest of my life…I would give up alcohol…hands down. There are multiple studies touting the benefits of coffee (check out this recent Ben Greenfield podcast titled 63 Cups of Coffee A Day & More: Five Simple Things You Can Do to Live a Longer, Healthier Life that makes the case for drinking a lot of it). Despite all of this…I’m trying to cut back. Here’s why:

Caffeine provides cognitive benefits (#duh) as well as endurance performance benefits. The kicker is that we actually need to be sensitized to caffeine to get the full effects. To get more technical, caffeine binds to adenosine receptors throughout the brain and nervous system.  Adenosine has been correlated with promoting sleep and relaxation and suppressing arousal.  When caffeine binds to adenosine receptors it blocks them from performing this function. However, our bodies are pretty adaptable and will create more adenosine receptors as a result of frequent and consistent caffeine consumption. Therefore, more and more caffeine is needed to create the same effect.

Sure sure…I could just drink even more coffee. However, too much caffeine can deplete the adrenals by constantly triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol can break down the body, slow down recovery, and interfere with the production of other hormones (e.g., testosterone).  As someone trying to balance family, career, and triathlon training (and trying to be successful across all three), I definitely wouldn’t consider my life low stress. Therefore, I absolutely don’t want to needlessly trigger my body to release even more cortisol. After all, training sessions don’t make you fit…RECOVERING from training sessions makes you fit. And, as I’ve mentioned before, the body doesn’t physiologically differentiate between life stress and workout stress.

Don’t get me wrong…I will never give up coffee (for many of these hilarious reasons). I also wouldn’t consider myself an over consumer of coffee either. I currently average 2-4 cups a day. For me, coffee is more habitual than it is necessary. If I don’t have my coffee in the morning I’m not going to be a train wreck. My coffee cravings often occur when I need a break or want to relax. In those situations, getting that habitual flavor of coffee is all I’m really looking for. I’ve tried tea during those times but, let’s be honest, tea isn’t coffee.

In order to remain sensitized to caffeine without dramatically reducing my coffee intake I’m doing the following:

  • A smaller cup in the morning – Instead of my giant and delicious 16oz cup in the morning, I’m working myself down to a smaller and equally delicious 8oz. I still get my morning coffee ritual but with a smaller cup.
  • Satisfying habitual cravings with decaf – A pretty obvious strategy. I prefer decaf coffee that uses the non-chemical Swiss Water Method for decaffeination. However, I don’t get too hung up on that.
  • Switching to mushroom coffee – I’m really starting to get into this coffee-cordyceps-1_1024x1024instant coffee with mushroom extract from Four Sigmatic foods for a couple of reasons: 1) It has about half the caffeine of a normal cup of coffee; 2) the mushroom extract in the different varieties provides added health benefits like boosting the immune system (chaga mushrooms), supporting the adrenal glands (cordyceps mushrooms), and nootropic and cognitive boosting effects (lion’s mane mushrooms); 3) the initial taste is unique and earthier than coffee but I really like it.

I’ve been drinking mushroom coffee a couple of different ways by either adding heavy cream and stevia, using it for my fatty coffee w/ butter and coconut oil, or just adding the powder to a normal cup of decaf to amp it up a bit.

  • Decaf “cleanse” every 4-6 weeks – During my cleanse week I’ll switch to a really good bag of decaf coffee like Bulletproof or Counter Culture. I’ll get that habitual, delicious coffee flavor with minimal caffeine. I’m going to try to time the cleanse weeks before race events.

By using the above strategies I’m hoping I can more strategically use fully caffeinated coffee for the performance benefit when I really need to crush a task or a race. Research indicates that having 3-6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight about an hour before an event will provide the most performance benefit. Granted…everyone metabolizes caffeine so I’ll need to experiment with that a bit.

In order to get the biggest bang out of coffee, I just want to make sure my body remains sensitive to caffeine and that means not overdoing the coffee…even though it tastes so good.

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