Take This Approach to Caffeine Use if You Want the Maximum Effect

Limit your caffeine intake to make it work for you more when you need it most

Sean Gill
Sean Gill
Jan 27 · 4 min read
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Photo by Tina Dawson on Unsplash

Like the rest of the world, I’m a sucker for a coffee shortly after waking. Even more so when it’s 4:45 in the morning. So strong is my addiction, the caffeine buzz no longer exists for me. De-sensitized to its effects, I feel great after my first espresso, but am certainly not bouncing off the walls.

This led me to take a more tactical approach to my caffeine intake. One that sees me limit myself to only consuming caffeine twice during the workweek, and once on the weekend. This makes you stop and think. You must evaluate when it will be most advantageous for you to have caffeine. It really makes it much more impactful when you do choose to consume it.

Why It Works

Choosing to use caffeine more tactically works because of the way our bodies adapt to stimulants. Have something more often and you need more to feel the same amount of stimulation next time. But more sporadic consumption leads to a greater impact. Having said that, everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine is different. While I can feel the effects after two or three days of abstinence, it might not be the case for you. Ultimately there’s only one way to overcome a caffeine tolerance: by decreasing your intake or by consuming it less often.

In fact, a study found that for some people it may only take four days to develop a strong caffeine tolerance. And if you’re an everyday consumer, it may take some time to fully reset that tolerance. Skipping caffeine for three days, then trying this approach, might not be enough. And that may be a turn-off to you, but luckily I have found some alternatives that I use on non-caffeine days.

The Alternatives

Your first option here is decaf. Whilst it’s not fully devoid of caffeine, the few milligrams it does contain are negligible. Especially when you do consume 200–300 milligrams on days that you do choose to intake caffeine (research shows consuming more than 400mg in a day is not a good idea). Such a large difference in caffeine means it shouldn't affect the buzz. It certainly hasn’t for me.

For me, the option of decaf is huge because of the taste and smell. I absolutely love the taste of coffee more than anything, with the aroma a close second. The ability to imitate the coffee experience without the caffeine almost makes this more tactical approach feel seamless.

The next option owes its effectiveness to the Dutchman Wim Hof, and his aptly named Wim Hof Method. The cold water immersion part of this three-pronged method is what initially piqued my interest. And whilst cold therapy has many studied benefits, it’s the ability of it to jolt the body into action that sees it compared to a hit of caffeine.

Whereas caffeine typically takes around 30 minutes to peak, and optimally stimulate the body, the cold water is an instant stressor that causes the body to react; immediately becoming alert. The simplest way I would describe it is an instant feeling of being wired — like going from 0 to 100. And it’s not a buzz that subsides either. I, like many others who employ the method, continue to feel alert and alive for the next few hours.

Just spending one minute in a cold as possible shower does the trick for me.

Finally, if you do still want to have caffeine every day, you could try having significantly more caffeine on the intake days. Depending on your level of consumption though, this may still involve cutting back somewhat on non-intake days. The key here is establishing a large enough gap to break any kind of tolerance the body has formed.

When I Usually Have Caffeine

There are three reasons I would choose to have caffeine: it’s a big workday, the day's workout is a HIIT session or comprised of heavy compound movements, and if I’ve had poor sleep the previous night. If there’s an occasion where all three situations are true, well, there’s only one way to play it.

To say the days I consume caffeine changes weekly would be a lie. I know which days I have the most clients to see, and which days contain the hardest training sessions. The unpredictable variable however is always the quality of the previous night's sleep. If you generally sleep well, your caffeine intake days will usually stay the same as you slip into a routine. On the mornings where you awake having had poor sleep, it’s nice to know you have this option up your sleeve — especially if you haven’t had much caffeine in the previous couple of days.

Final Thoughts

The only way to avoid caffeine tolerance is to only consume it occasionally, which may look different to everyone based on their sensitivity. The goal is to try and stay right on the edge of tolerance so that it has a major impact when consumed. Imagine having not consumed caffeine for the past three days — and there’s a big day ahead. An early morning double espresso, followed by a cheeky late morning espresso? Yep, s**t is getting done that day.

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Sean Gill

Written by

Sean Gill

Exercise Physiologist residing down under. Addicted to the science behind health and performance.

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