Mind and Body

Is there a best time to drink coffee? Plan your cups to optimize exercise, sleep, and alertness

Grab yourself a coffee and buckle up.

American actress Lucille Ball (1911 - 1989) passing a coffee tray to her husband, actor and musician...
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If you’re like me, the day doesn’t start without a fresh cup of coffee — but if you are like most Americans, then you likely don’t stop at breakfast. According to the National Coffee Association, about two-thirds of Americans drink coffee every day, and the average drinker consumes three cups of bean juice daily. The vast majority sip theirs in the morning but who hasn’t hit that 4 p.m. lull when you feel an almost guilty need to reach for the K-cup to make it through your final hours of work?

It’s time to spill the beans — grabbing a cup of coffee first thing in the morning is not necessarily the optimal way to get your caffeine buzz and energy for the day.

But like all good things, science has a solution to answering one of the most important questions in life: When is the best time to drink coffee? The short answer is it depends on what you have planned for the day.

Here’s our guide to the best times to drink coffee:

  • For mental alertness
  • For sleep
  • For exercise

Best time to drink coffee for alertness

Coffee could help you stay alert at work.

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The best time to drink coffee for alertness is mid-morning or early afternoon. According to a CNBC interview with registered dietician Laura Cipullo, don’t drink coffee when you first wake up.

“Have coffee when the body is producing less cortisol, about three to four hours after waking,” Cipullo says according to CNBC.

The reason for waiting is that you give yourself time for your body’s cortisol levels come down after waking — cortisol is known as the “stress hormone,” but it plays an important role in making us feel alert.

When you first wake up, your body floods with cortisol — transitioning you from a sleep state to an alert state quickly. Even if you don’t feel stressed, your cortisol levels will stay up for another 30 to 45 minutes after waking up. Caffeine also ups cortisol levels — hence why you might feel a jolt of alertness after a coffee. If you wake up, roll out of bed, and pour a cup of coffee, you’re prolonging the state of arousal — and that can make you stressed.

If your cortisol levels remain high, you can also experience unpleasant side effects, including:

  • Irritability
  • Weight gain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Excess hair growth
  • A hump between your shoulders

Ultimately: Wait at least one hour after waking for your cortisol levels to drop back to baseline before you pour yourself a nitro brew. After that, the effects work quickly.

One cup of coffee kicks your butt in gear after 10 minutes. But if you want to be at the top of your game, it can take between 30 minutes to an hour before the caffeine gets absorbed into your bloodstream — so if you have a big test or meeting, plan ahead.

The best time to drink coffee for sleep

You can still have your coffee and sleep, too!

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The latest you should drink coffee is 6 hours before bed. So if you’re planning on going to bed at 11 p.m., your last cup should be no later than 5 p.m.

If you ‌decide to sneak in an extra expresso, you’ll pay for it later by losing an hour or two of sleep. Your body has an internal 24-hour clock that dictates when it’s time to get up and when it’s time to sleep. One brain molecule, called adenosine, tells the brain when it’s time to get ready for bed. Adenosine levels are lowest in the morning and increase throughout the day. As evening approaches, adenosine levels are at an all-time high in areas involved in arousal and wakefulness. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain from sending out inhibitory signals that naturally promote sleepiness.

Also know this: The body takes about 5 hours to metabolize half of the caffeine in one cup of coffee. In other words, it takes 10 hours to get it fully out of your system.

While caffeine does mess with the sleep cycle, there is some research suggesting a “coffee nap” can help you recharge and stay awake longer if you need to do so. A coffee nap involves finishing a cup and immediately taking a 20-minute nap. Sleeping for 20 minutes prevents the body from entering deeper stages of sleep and prevents you from waking up more tired than before (sleep inertia). Twenty minutes is also enough time for caffeine to take effect.

The best time to drink coffee for exercise

Imagine if your coffee table was a rowing machine!

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An extra boost of energy can get you through an intense workout. Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or the average gym-goer, the research shows that having a cup of joe before a workout may make your exercise routine more efficient.

Since caffeine reaches its peak within an hour, ‌try to drink coffee at least one hour before doing one of the following workouts:

  • Muscle endurance
  • Muscle strength
  • Anaerobic power
  • Aerobic endurance

One study shows sipping a cup of coffee or taking caffeine alternatives may enhance resistance workouts like push-ups or lunges. These study authors recommend taking a caffeine pill 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. Caffeine chewing gum taken 10 minutes before exercise may also help with resistance training, the study suggests.

Ingesting a little caffeine before exercising may also enhance a person’s strength and upper-body muscle power, research suggests.

For aerobic activities such as running, a 2018 study found that having a little caffeine before a race improved the number of sprints and the total distance covered by track runners. If you like to dance, swim, or just get your body moving, drinking coffee may be a great way to increase your endurance and boost your upper-body and lower-body workouts.

Pairing coffee with exercise seems like a recipe for success — as long as you don’t go overboard. For healthy adults, the recommendation is to consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (about 4 to 5 standard cups of coffee). When you go past that limit, coffee may hurt more than help your performance.

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