This month, we’re focussing on how caffeine can boost physical and mental performance – for professional athletes and the occasional gym-goer alike. For many, a caffeine kick is vital before a workout. But there are plenty of questions surrounding the pre-training coffee.
So we spoke with performance coach and coffee enthusiast Chris Tombs, who has worked with some of the biggest names in Welsh rugby, about all things coffee and exercise.
Chris, thanks very much for joining us this month. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been in performance sport for 25 years, predominantly in rugby, in England, Wales and the US. I’ve also worked with a couple of county cricket teams and a downhill mountain biker – that was interesting!
If I didn’t do that, I’d probably be owning and running a coffee shop. I had serious thoughts about it in lockdown! The pop-ups now seem very popular – I’m talking about the boutique coffee stands – I’m not keen on buying from the big names.
You’ve worked with some seriously impressive names, like former Wales Captain Sam Warburton – what was your most rewarding job?
Cardiff Blues was my most rewarding job – from 2004 to 2013. I physically developed players there and prepared them for the rigours of rugby. I have worked with Sam since he was a kid. He did the work, of course, but I coached him for over ten years. He’s technically now my boss at the SW7 Academy.
You were also head strength and conditioning coach for USA women. Do you have any tips on how to prevent injuries from home?
Weak muscles break the whole chain and cause injury. So make sure you work those that can go weak. Target the hamstrings, abs and muscles that you don’t see in the mirror. Keep your hips and ankles moving. If any of these areas go weak, lower back pain is much more likely.
Sitting down for long periods is one of the worst things you can do. It’s the fastest way to age and get lower back pain. Stand up desks are a great investment.
I’m at the gym for midday because I don’t want to sacrifice movement for desk time. Even if you’re going to do nothing else, walk 10,000 steps a day. That’s just 100 minutes a week, and it has unbelievable impacts on your health.
Let’s talk coffee. Is it bad to drink caffeine before working out?
I’m a big advocate for caffeine as a supplement and a social good. Caffeine is one of the most highly researched ergogenic aids in the world. Whether you’re an everyday athlete or a grandparent, the research and evidence for caffeine’s performance enhancement is huge.
Coffee is my drink of choice because of the social aspect. It’s a connection thing and I have an awful lot of time for that. It gives me an instant pick me up which will carry over into the training session – the alertness, cognitive benefits and the rest.
Is there a limit to the amount of coffee you should be drinking?
It’s down to milligrams per kilo of body weight. The International Society of Sports Nutrition says caffeine has been shown to improve exercise performance when consumed in doses of 3–6 mg per kg of body mass. But ultimately, it’s also down to tolerance.
If you drink a lot of coffee, you can probably take a bit more. I’ve had six shots of coffee today already, and it’s 10:45. I probably won’t have more, though – I’m done by midday.
It’s generally agreed that healthy adults can consume about 300 – 400 mg of caffeine a day without adverse effects. And a double espresso before some exercise, for me, is going to be performance enhancing without a shadow of a doubt.
Not only are the benefits of caffeine physiological; the reason cricketers and rugby players took it was because of cognitive benefits – alertness, speed of reaction and the rest. Just make sure you cut off earlier in the day so you’re not up all night.
And what are your thoughts on caffeine supplements, known as ‘pre-workout’?
I wouldn’t buy that. If you have a double shot of espresso at home, it’s much more cost effective. My machine pops out a double shot for less than 50p. A scoop of pre-workout at a gym can cost as much as £3.
What’s your home coffee set up?
Sage Barista Pro is my machine of choice. I’ve also got a pour-over kit, a moka pot and a French press. It’s a ritual! Saturday is pour-over, the moka pot is for Sunday, day-to-day is espresso, and I’ve got an AeroPress for the road.
I’m taking my machine on next summer’s camping trip. Why not? Everyone is going to pay me £2 for a coffee on the site. That’ll cover the cost of the holiday!
And what’s the ideal breakfast to go along with the coffee?
You need protein, fat and carbs. It’s that simple. I go for steak and eggs. Everyone says it sounds expensive, but if you get a croissant and a coffee from a high-street coffee shop, you’ll spend £5. That’s the same as the cost of steak and eggs.
This morning, though, I had avocado and poached egg with two thick slices of sourdough bread – very millennial!
Finally, what’s your connection with Will, our head of coffee?
I first met Will, it must have been in 2007, when he had a market stall by the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I’m sure all the famous Welsh rugby players of that era have had a coffee made by Will Corby!
My quest for good coffee never ends. Wherever in the world we are, I need to find a good coffee shop – my wife hates it!
Chris Tombs is a professional strength and conditioning coach and performance consultant. He has worked in elite sport for over 20 years and is best known for the physical development of some of Welsh rugby’s highest profile current players. Find out more about Chris.
If you are looking to begin to consume caffeine before exercise, Pact strongly advises that you consult a doctor first. Keep in mind that caffeine content varies widely, and too much can cause health problems.