By Margarita Nahapetyan
A cup of coffee that many cyclists, runners and other athletes drink before a workout or a competition, does much more than just energize them. According to the scientists, caffeine kills some of the pain of athletic exertion by blocking the receptors that make the brain aware of muscle strain.
University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Robert Motl, claims that he has made the breakthrough by consuming coffee on a regular basis as a competitive cyclist. He believes that most athletes drink a cup of coffee before a workout without even realizing that it helps them feel less pain. The expert has been examining the relationship between caffeine and exercise for more than seven years. First, he started analyzing if there is a connection between caffeine intake, spinal reflexes and exertion, and figured out that caffeine affects parts of the brain and the spinal cord (the adenosine neuromodulatory system), that are particularly responsible for pain processing.
Dr. Motl's new study involved 25 healthy, college-aged male participants, who had to perform series of different intensity trials on a stationary bicycle in the laboratory, to show their aerobic power. All the men were divided into two distinct groups: the first group included individuals whose everyday caffeine intake was extremely low or non-existent; the second group included those with an average caffeine intake of about 400 milligrams, which is the equivalent of 3 to 4 cups of coffee per day.
After the completion of an initial exercise on a stationary bicycle, all the participants were asked to go for two monitored high-intensity, half an hour exercise sessions. The cyclists had been instructed to abstain from caffeine for 24 hours before the tests and then, one hour before each session, they were given a nondescript pill. Prior to the first session the participants got the tablet which contained a dose of caffeine that contained five milligrams per kilogram of body weight, or the equivalent of 2 to 3 cups of coffee, and right before the second session they received a placebo.
During both periods of exercise sessions, the experts were recording at regular intervals the participants' perceptions of quadriceps muscle pain, as well as the data on their oxygen consumption, heart rate and their work rate. At the end, it was found that all the study subjects felt significantly less pain during the workout session when they had taken a pill that contained caffeine, than during the session when they had received a sugar tablet. And it even worked for individuals who already consumed a couple thermoses of coffee per day. "We have shown that caffeine reduces pain reliably, consistently during cycling, across different intensities, across different people, different characteristics," said Professor Motl.
The expert hopes that his findings could be encouraging for a number of people, including those who want to become more physically active in order to realize the health benefits of a tiresome workout. He brought the example of people who go to gym and start exercising, and later, when they start feeling the pain, they immediately withdraw. Dr. Motl believes that if these people knew that they could take a little caffeine which would reduce their pain, they could normally continue with that exercise routine.
These findings are published in the April 2009 edition of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.