Does Caffeine Prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?


If you lift weights, you’re probably familiar with DOMS, an acronym for delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS is the stiffness and achy muscles you experience 36 to 48 hours after a resistance training workout. The soreness and stiffness typically linger for a few days and, sometimes, up to a week. Delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t happen every time you work out. Your muscles adapt to the stress you place on them with repeated training so that delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t develop. Once your muscles adapt, you only experience DOMS when you work your muscles harder than they’re accustomed to.


Because DOMS is uncomfortable and makes it harder to train for a few days, people are always looking for ways to prevent it or shorten its duration. Research has looked at the impact certain foods have on delayed onset muscle soreness. Some candidates that have modest benefits include tart cherries and the spice turmeric. However, there’s another common dietary component that may impact post-workout muscle soreness. In fact, you get a dose of it every time you pull into Starbucks. It’s caffeine, of course!


Does Caffeine Reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
You might wonder what science says about delayed onset muscle soreness and caffeine. Good news for coffee lovers! There’s evidence that drinking caffeinated coffee can lessen the impact of DOMS. One study found that in subjects who didn’t routinely drink caffeinated beverages, a dose of caffeine 60 minutes before a workout reduced DOMS 48 to 72 hours later. Another study found that a dose of caffeine equivalent to 2 cups of coffee subdued delayed onset muscle soreness by 48%!


In yet another small study, researchers asked a group of nine men who didn’t typically consume caffeine to do an upper body workout. Some of the guys consumed caffeine an hour before working out while others didn’t. Each participant did a total of 3 sets of biceps curls using a weight that allowed them to complete 10 reps. On the final set, they did as many reps as possible to exhaust the muscles and induce DOMS.


The results? The participants who consumed caffeine experienced reduced muscle soreness on days 2 and 3 relative to those who took the placebo. The subjects who consumed caffeine also had a performance advantage. They were able to complete more repetitions in the final set of the workout. The dose used in the study was 5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight.


It’s not clear how caffeine curbs delayed onset muscle soreness. In the study, researchers also measured levels of creatine kinase (CK), a marker of muscle damage. Creatine kinase rises when muscles are worked hard enough to cause delayed onset muscle soreness. Caffeine didn’t offset the rise in CK. This suggests that it may not directly prevent muscle damage. It may be that it reduces the perception of pain by its effects on the central nervous system.


Other Benefits of Caffeine
We know that caffeine boosts wakefulness, attention, and focus, but it also benefits exercise performance. One way it does this is by masking the perception of how hard you’re working when you exercise. In other words, exercise feels easier when you have caffeine on board. This pertains mainly to endurance exercise. One way exercise boosts endurance is through its impact on fuel usage during exercise. When you have caffeine on board, it favors the breakdown of fat as a fuel source, thereby sparing muscle glycogen.


The amount of caffeine you need to get performance benefits with endurance exercise is lower than the quantity used in the DOMS study. Studies show that as little as 2-3 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is enough to enhance endurance exercise performance. To avoid tolerance to the effects of caffeine, it’s best to avoid consuming caffeine for a week before an event where you want the endurance boost that caffeine offers.


It’s less clear whether caffeine enhances performance for high-intensity exercise. Studies show equivocal results. This may be due to differences in the amount of caffeine used and the type of training protocols. It wouldn’t be surprising if caffeine does improve high-intensity exercise performance as it reduces the perception of how hard you’re working.


What’s Not to Love about Caffeine?
Consuming caffeine sounds like a no-brainer if you’re trying to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and improve your performance when you do endurance exercise. However, everyone responds to caffeine a bit differently. Around 25% of the population metabolizes caffeine slowly. For slow metabolizers, caffeine stays in the body longer and increases the risk of adverse effects.


In one study, slow metabolizers had a 36% higher risk of a heart attack if they drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee daily and a 64% greater risk if they drank 4 or more cups daily. So, if you know you’re a slow metabolizer of caffeine limit the number of caffeinated beverages you drink. You can find out if you metabolize caffeine slowly through genetic testing.


In addition, recommendations are that people limit the amount of caffeine they consume to no more than 400 milligrams daily. It’s easy to consume more than you think you are since it’s in tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, and coffee. Plus, some medications, including non-prescription ones, contain caffeine.


The Bottom Line
There is substantial evidence that caffeine reduces delayed onset muscle soreness – and that’s a good thing! In addition, relatively modest amounts of caffeine may boost performance during endurance exercise and, possibly, high-intensity interval type exercise as well. Plus, studies link coffee with a growing number of health benefits. But, be aware that caffeine affects each of us differently depending on how quickly we metabolize it.


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