Photos Anucha Tiemsom/, wsantina/ and Maridav/

Muscle soreness is one of the more bittersweet results of exercise. Most of us get a feeling of satisfaction from a little post-workout stiffness, but no one likes when aching muscles keep us from our regular workouts. In recent years, recovery tools like foam rollers and trigger point massagers have become mainstream, allowing us to speed up the process and get back in the gym. But there’s another method we may be overlooking—and chances are, you already use it every day. 

That’s right, we’re talking about caffeine. The stimulant most of us rely on to get going in the morning or pick us up in the afternoon has been shown to potentially reduce muscle pain when consumed post-workout. As if that’s not enough, along with decreased discomfort, studies suggest that caffeine paired with carbohydrates may help to actually refuel and repair the muscle more quickly. Intrigued? Us too. But before you start chugging cappuccinos after the gym, let’s look into the facts.  

What Causes Muscle Soreness?

Muscle soreness often creeps in when we start a new workout routine or increase intensity or duration of exercise. In the past, many have thought that lactic acid was responsible for that unpleasant pain lasting long after the workout was done, but the truth is, while lactic acid does build up in the muscle during exercise, it is actually excreted hours after, only causing muscle soreness within the current day, and therefore does not contribute to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). The real soreness has to do with micro-tears in the muscle fibers, creating soreness that lingers for days.

How Can Caffeine Improve Muscle Soreness?

1. Caffeine may dull the feeling of pain. The pain relief benefits of caffeine are well known in the medical community, especially in the pharmaceutical field. Caffeine is a common additive in over-the-counter pain relievers to help enhance the effects of medication. Numerous double-blinded studies have demonstrated the beneficial use of caffeine in post-exercise soreness.  Researchers have speculated that caffeine dulls the pain by blocking the pain pathways, triggering adrenaline secretion (the body’s natural pain reducer) and stimulating the central nervous system, which is thought to skew the body’s perception of pain.

2. Caffeine paired with carbs may refuel and recover muscle faster. This may sound like an odd pairing, but research has shown a positive correlation to muscle soreness. According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, caffeine paired with carbohydrates post-workout was shown to increase the glycogen stores in muscles by almost 66 percent in the four hours after exercise. This means the muscle is getting even more of what it needs to repair damaged tissue, allowing you to get back to your workout faster. 

How Much Caffeine Is Enough?

Consuming caffeine post-workout seems easy enough, but there are some considerations to keep in mind. Research from the University of Georgia recommends a moderate dose of caffeine (200 mg or about two cups of coffee) to notice the analgesic and recovery effects by as much as 48 percent improvement. But if you’re already downing more caffeine than that on the regular (who isn’t?), you may not notice any recovery improvements and require more to feel the effects, resulting in unhealthy levels of caffeination.

Megan Rigby
Megan Rigby is a doctorate prepared nurse practitioner, certified nutritionist and owner of MacroMini. With over 13 years of experience in the health and wellness space, she specializes in gut health, nutrition and lifestyle changes.