Decaf diaries

Going in

In an attempt to resensitize myself to caffeine, I’ve decided to go without it for a while. I also hope that this can help me improve my sleep quality, which has been consistently shit for the past few years.

I don’t have a specific time period in mind — it can be a couple of weeks, it can be a couple of months, who knows. The goal is more like to get to a point where I feel “normal” without caffeine and then to start strategically reintroducing it for targeted energy boosts, especially for training. Also, I am not trying to completely eliminate even trace amounts of caffeine, so I will still be drinking decaf coffee, eating chocolate, etc. Just no more three-to-∞ 11oz mugs of filtered coffee every day. No black, green, or white tea either, but that’s easy, since I mostly only drink herbal tea anyway and don’t have black or green tea at home (I do have a white and herbal tea blend, which is probably very low in caffeine, but I’ll avoid it just in case). And no 100g of dark chocolate in one sitting or some such, which I wouldn’t do anyway.

I don’t know if I will actually be able to achieve my resensitization or sleep quality improvement goals, but I thought I’d at least keep track of the effects the lack of caffeine will have on me. So here are my decaf diaries.

Day 1 (7/5/2022)

I am writing this in the morning of Day 2, so I will recount the whole day.

I was super-low-energy and groggy throughout the entire day. Kinda like jetlag or hangover, despite having a decent night of sleep and zero alcohol the night before. Or a flu. Or , I guess, covid. FWIW, I don’t know if I’ve had covid (if I did, it was with no or very mild symptoms), but I did have pretty severe symptoms for one day after my second covid vaccine shot — the “decaf” symptoms aren’t as bad, but the grogginess and (mild) fatigue are there.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do anything high level throughout most of the day, as I was just catching up on some email, doing some light paperwork for my new upcoming postdoc position, and browsing apartments in Konstanz (which is where I will be relocating, if I manage to get a visa in time). However, I had to teach a class at a summer school over Zoom from 4:30pm to 5:45pm, and I was so apathetic I am sure the students noticed (it didn’t help that the material I had to teach was kinda high level for this class).

I went to the gym before teaching, and my workout sucked. It was a leg day, so I knew I was going to be miserable anyway, but I was still surprised just how hard everything was. I did maybe 85–90% of my normal intensity, at least on the bigger, heavier movements (barbell hip thrust and back squat on this day), and was totally gassed by the end of it. I had absolutely no energy, physical or mental, left for cardio, so I just walked on the treadmill meekly for about 10 minutes and called it a day.

I drank four mugs of decaf coffee throughout the day in an attempt to maintain a semblance of my routine and at least get the placebo effect. No such luck. I think herbal tea with zero caffeine did more to energize me than decaf coffee. Also, while the decaf does taste like coffee in principle, its taste is kinda weak and flat, no matter how strong I brew it.

By 9pm, I was struggling to stay awake. Granted, I’d been sleep-deprived for at least a week before, so I am sure that contributed as well. I gave up and went to bed at 10pm, while it was still full daylight outside (I am in Oslo). I’d been taking melatonin for a few weeks (1 or 2mg nightly), and I considered not taking any on this night, given how sleepy I was already, but I was kinda curious what effect melatonin will have on me when it doesn’t have to fight caffeine, so I still took 1mg.

Day 2 (7/6/2022)

Originally, I planned to go on a short run in the morning, since I expected to wake up early. I haven’t run regularly since last fall, due to SI joint issues, which would be exacerbated by running, but I haven’t had any pain in a while and have been considering getting back into it. I thought today would be the day, but nope. I did wake up at about 5am, but I was in a total haze and fell back asleep shortly after. I woke up briefly a couple more times, but remained in this overwhelming haze. Eventually, I dragged myself out of bed shortly before 8am. Running was not in the cards for me.

I am writing this now as I am drinking my second mug of decaf coffee, still in a haze. I do think it’s not just the lack of caffeine, but also melatonin hitting me like a truck in the absence of its nemesis. But the good thing is: no headaches so far. It used to be that not getting coffee upon waking up gave me headaches after just a couple of hours. But it’s been almost two full days since my last cup of coffee — and nothing so far. Fingers crossed it will continue like this.

Another good thing is that I am so apathetic that I can’t bring myself to be properly anxious. Like… I should be super-anxious about my visa paperwork for Germany, my remote apartment hunting (which, in Konstanz, is super-hard even on-site, especially if you don’t speak German, which I don’t), me having to move out of my Oslo apartment (which would include somehow getting rid of a full-size treadmill and all my lifting equipment that I accumulated during the latest lockdown), me having to wrap up my EU-funded project here in Oslo, etc. And the anxiety is there, it’s just dulled down and comes with a sense of detachment, like none of this is happening to me.

Thankfully, I don’t have to teach today and can, once again, afford to only do low level work. This will have to change soon, though…

I am planning to go bouldering later today. We’ll see how that goes lol.

***

I had a YouTube video playing in the background while I was making food, and it was one of those ‘expert in x reviews scenes depicting x in the media’ kind of videos. And so I am tuning in and out, as usual, and suddenly, I just randomly hear this paleontologist guy say, ‘So the sloths today are really a shadow of what they used to be’. And I am just standing there, staring at the fridge, trying to figure out what I am doing here and why, and I am like, ‘Yep, I can relate to that’.

***

I don’t think I’ve ever gone a full day without caffeine ever since I started drinking coffee regularly as a teenager — and certainly not in the past ten years or so. And now it’s my second day. It’s surreal.

***

Finishing up the entry for this day on the next day. The bouldering session went as expected, i.e., it was shit. I had neither physical nor mental energy to do anything even remotely hard (and I already have issues with taking risks and committing when bouldering). I still did a couple of moves here and there that made me proud of myself, but ultimately, the session was trash, and I was done after just an hour and a half while normally I’d go for about two hours.

I started feeling sleepy pretty early once again and eventually went to bed at 11pm. I also had some wine in the evening, which is what I normally do about twice a week. Alcohol, of course, does impact my sleep negatively, but the size of this effect naturally depends on how much I drink, and I didn’t have a lot this time around, so I expected maybe only a mild disruption. I also skipped the melatonin.

Day 3 (7/7/2022)

I slept fairly well, despite the alcohol and the lack of melatonin. I still woke up multiple times throughout the night, which is normal for me, but had no issues falling back asleep. I woke up “definitively” around 7am and immediately noticed that the groggy haze was not there. So looks like it was melatonin all along.

I am writing this now, shortly before 9am on day 3, and while I am still feeling pretty low energy and a little sleepy, the terrible haze of the previous two days is gone. This is reassuring, especially because I am teaching again today.

***

I am about to go to the gym, and I am, once again, feeling weak and unmotivated. I’m drinking some lemon and fennel tea that promises to “awaken [my] day”, but I don’t think it’s working…

***

Cold decaf coffee is vile, y’all.

***

Back from the gym. The workout (upper body) wasn’t great, especially, once again, the big lifts, but it didn’t suck as much as the ones on days 1 and 2 (melatonin was indeed fucking me up on those days). To give you some rough idea of how much I am losing in strength: today I only managed 3 sets of 5 reps of 55kg on the bench as my primary working sets at RPE ~8–9 (i.e., leaving ~1–2 reps in the tank). Normally, I would expect to be able to do 3 sets of 6–7 reps with this weight at the same intensity. But I am not even sure if it’s me actually being weaker physically or my ability to assess my exertion levels being off. And again, I couldn’t force myself to do any decent cardio, just a very lazy 15 minutes on a stationary bike.

***

The teaching went better than on day 1. Went to bed shortly before 11pm.

Day 4 (7/8/2022)

I slept normally, which for me means waking up a few times (one of them around 5am and for longer, long enough to start scrolling through my phone), but falling back asleep eventually, doing a couple of bathroom trips, having weird-ass dreams. The /juːʒ/.

Still only have the energy for very basic work stuff. This will need to change soon.

My bouldering session didn’t suck as much as it did when I was also high on melatonin running unopposed, but I was still far from being at 100%.

Day 5 (7/9/2022)

Still low energy. No ostensible improvements in sleep quality so far.

My big lifts continue to suffer. My current PRs on both the conventional and the sumo deadlift are 115kg, and I was hoping to go for 120kg on the sumo soon, I felt ready. Even on the worst pre-decaf day, I would still be able to pull at least 110kg for one rep on either the conventional or the sumo. Today, I only went up to 105kg on the conventional, and it felt super-hard. I didn’t even try 110kg, since I felt like I was either gonna fail or injure myself or both.

Another side effect is that I am hungrier than usual in the first half of the day. These days, I normally don’t eat until at least noon or later (no strict intermittent fasting regimen or anything, just a routine I slipped into naturally during the pandemic, which also helps me not to overeat). Normally, fasting throughout the morning is easy for me, as I drink a lot of coffee during the first half of the day, and caffeine is a powerful appetite suppressor. But these past few days I feel like I am constantly hungry.

Teaching again in a few minutes. Hopefully, I’ll find my groove as I go, because right now, I’m not feeling it.

Day 6 (7/10/2022)

I am really starting to doubt if it’s worth it. My workout yesterday was very low volume and low intensity for me, and yet I feel a bit sore. I don’t normally get DOMS, unless I introduce a new type of stimulus or really ramp up the volume.

Now, my original goals were two-fold. First, improve my sleep quality. Second, with respect to athletic performance, I expected an initial slump, but was then hoping to get back to 100% somewhat soon-ish, so that I could then get to 105–110% by strategically reintroducing caffeine as a pre-workout performance booster. So far, my sleep hasn’t been improving, and my performance and, apparently, recovery are in the gutter. If this continues to be the case, then what’s the point? I don’t mind having to rely on caffeine to keep myself at 100%. And I’ve been getting more sleep quality benefits from melatonin — and with caffeine counteracting the melatonin-induced drowsiness, it looks like I already had a decent biochemical set-up.

Anyways. I’m going to give it another week or so, but if I don’t see a positive trend, then I’ll end this experiment.

Day 7 (7/11/2022)

I went bouldering again today and actually felt pretty good energy-wise throughout the session. It wasn’t a very long session, but it was a productive one. I even had energy to do some dynamic moves, like this powerful deadpoint start:

I wonder how much the fact that yesterday was a rest day factored into this. There’s still a chance that the lack of caffeine is affecting my recovery time…

Day 10 (7/14/2022)

I skipped two days, because there wasn’t anything interesting to report really. I am getting used to the decaf routine. My energy levels aren’t that bad throughout the day, but I still lack the energy and strength during my lifting sessions. I’ll come in all ready and energized and will feel good during the warm-up, but then the first heavy set crushes me hard, and I just can’t handle the volume and intensity I am normally able to.

Another thing I haven’t mentioned before is that I think I briefly became more irritable after going decaf. It was kinda hard to notice, because I’m already a pretty irritable person as is, but I think it was worse for a bit. That said, I think this might be slowly subsiding. But also, of course, after that initial melatonin-induced apathy, my anxiety has now come back swinging.

Anyways, I’m about to go to the gym again. We’ll see how that goes.

Day 15 (7/19/2022)

It’s been two full weeks. I finished the two bags of crappy-to-mediocre decaf coffee I got from regular grocery stores (those around here normally only have one brand of decaf coffee in stock, and it would be of the cheaper kind) and, finally, got some better decaf coffee yesterday from the small store across the street that sells a lot of imported goods (shout out to Rosenhoff Dagligvare — not sponsored). They had several decaf options, but once I saw the bag that said ‘Masha Estate’ on it, I knew it was a sign. This coffee is indeed better than what I had before, but still a bit flat. I miss the taste of real coffee so much, I crave it all the time.

A paper bag of coffee on a kitchen counter in front of a coffee maker and a coffee grinder. The label on the bag says: ‘Swiss water process. Koffeinfri. Masha Estate. Etiopia. 250g hele bønner. Koffeinfri kaffe med god, kremet fylde, frisk syrlighet. Hint av jordbær, honning og mango i smaken.’
The ‘Masha Estate’ decaf coffee from Rosenhoff Dagligvare

My workout felt pretty good today. Most importantly, my strength levels have been normalizing. I went up to 115kg on the sumo deadlift the other day and up to 110kg on the conventional today (and could probably do more). I also tried out cluster sets on the deadlift today for the first time, which were pretty brutal, but didn’t leave me completely gassed. Granted, I only did two, because it’s a new thing for me, and we’ll see how my recovery is going to go. I also technically PR’ed on the bench today, going up to 62.5kg for three reps while my previous PR was the same weight for two reps.

Also, looking back at my average Fitbit sleep scores for the past two weeks, they are a bit higher than usual, although it’s hard to tell whether this is an effect of going off caffeine or supplementing with melatonin for several weeks prior to that — or even just the white nights declining here in Oslo.

At this point, the main remaining side effects of being decaf are the higher-than-normal appetite during the first half of the day and me constantly craving the taste of real coffee.

Anyways, I think I’m gonna keep doing this for another week or maybe even two. I am afraid of going back to consuming caffeine too soon.

Day 16 (7/20/2022)

Hm, I am starting to wonder if that new decaf coffee I bought is, in fact, fully decaf. I’ve been feeling quite restless ever since I started drinking it yesterday, had a bit of a trouble falling asleep last night, and my resting heart rate is way higher than normal. It is true, though, that these two days have also been very hectic and stressful for me (things are finally moving on the Konstanz front, visa-wise and apartment-wise, but that means even more anxiety). But then again, my gym performance yesterday might suggest that I might have ingested a not insubstantial amount of caffeine.

I think this coffee was decaffeinated using a different process than the cheaper brands, and even though this process might be “chemical-free” (a formulation from the Swiss Water website), I wonder if it might not be less efficient than the other methods and leave behind more residual caffeine. They claim otherwise on their website, but… Or, perhaps, since this coffee is closer in taste to regular coffee, I am getting a placebo effect from drinking it. Who knows. Either way, I will stop drinking it for now, just in case.

Day 25 (7/29/2022)

It’s been more than three weeks, and I believe my new decaf routine has completely stabilized. By now I think it’s safe to say that my sleep has not improved in any ostensible way, and indeed, it was better back when I took melatonin and consumed caffeine. My gym performance is completely back to normal, and, in fact, today I finally hit those coveted 120kg on the sumo deadlift:

If I sleep for at least 6.5 hours (counting the actual sleep, not how much time I spend in bed) — which is often a challenge for me — my energy levels throughout the day are OK. That is emphatically not the case if I sleep less than that, and this is when I miss caffeine the most.

The biggest remaining issue is that my hunger levels in the first half of the day are still higher than before, so I started eating breakfast again. This has made it pretty hard for me to stay within my maintenance caloric range, as I am still as hungry as before in the second half of the day. Since I expect to only consume caffeine occasionally after reintroducing it (which I will probably start doing in a week or so), I would probably need to rethink my nutrition somewhat to find sustainable strategies to prevent overeating.

Day 27 (7/31/2022)

My period started yesterday, and I feel like my cramps are worse than they’ve been in a while. I always have to take ibuprofen during the first 1.5–2 days of my period, but this time around I’ve had to take more than usual. Caffeine is an analgesic adjuvant, so this checks out.

Nonetheless, I had a fantastic bouldering session today. Despite being in pain, super-bloated, and heavier than usual, as well as actively experiencing a pretty heavy flow throughout the session, I was somehow able to climb hard and flash several boulders in a row at a grade that I rarely flash. I suspect this is because (i) I slept quite well the night before, and (ii) I have finally surrendered to my elevated hunger levels caused by the lack of caffeine (and exacerbated now by my period) and have been eating at a surplus this past week. The latter naturally caused an immediate weight gain (most of it being water weight, of course) — which is not ideal for bouldering — but all that extra glycogen in my muscles is clearly paying off.

Day 35 (8/8/2022)

Today is the day. Today I am starting to strategically reintroduce caffeine into my life. I am planning to have one 11oz mug of filtered coffee before my workout and will report back once I return from the gym.

***

Oh my God, I missed coffee so much.

***

OK, I didn’t miss the coffee shits. Something I haven’t mentioned before (and haven’t been even fully aware of) is that my bowel movements have been somewhat better sans caffeine — without going into the sordid details.

***

Nor did I miss the coffee sweats.

***

It is ~5pm now. I had my coffee at about noon, and it fully hit in about half an hour. For the first time in 35 days, I was feeling truly awake. I was experiencing the mental clarity and the level of awareness that I haven’t experienced in a while, and was super-motivated to push myself as hard as possible at the gym and even to get back to work afterwards.

Unsurprisingly, my workout went splendidly. I ended up hitting a new number on the bench (65kg for one rep), which I have clearly been physically ready for for a while now, but just needed that extra mental push. I also repeated my PR from a while ago on the overhead press (40kg for two reps). I even had the desire and energy to do a 20-minute run on the treadmill after the ~80-minute lifting session. It also helped that while I was at the gym, I got an email from the German embassy in Oslo informing me that my research visa had been granted (something that I have been stressing out immensely about in the past few weeks), which boosted my morale even further.

As for the side effects, I was sweating profusely throughout my workout despite the gym being relatively cool and was having slight tremors for about an hour and a half after drinking the coffee. But this was a minor nuisance, to be honest.

The ostensible effects of caffeine subsided after ~3.5 hours.

Final thoughts

So, was it worth it?

As someone who is constantly seeking to better understand their body and how various things affect it, this has certainly been an informative experience. But were there any practical benefits? Once again, I had two main goals at the outset: (i) resensitize myself to caffeine so that I could use it more strategically (especially to boost athletic performance), and (ii) improve my sleep.

I can now say confidently that there have been no drastic improvements to my sleep duration or quality. Whatever minor improvements there might have been, I was definitely getting more from melatonin. Furthermore, without caffeine, my sleep has been affecting my energy levels the next day much more — basically, anything that is not a 6.5+ hour night of sleep with only minor interruptions makes me sleepy and low energy for pretty much the whole day. Caffeine used to make me feel closer to normal even after somewhat suboptimal sleep. Considering that I am prone to random bouts of insomnia, and it is in general hard for me to stay asleep for long, this is far from ideal.

As for the first goal, time will tell how long I will be able to only use caffeine as an occasional performance booster. Chances are I will slowly get back to consuming the same amounts as before this experiment as I am getting more and more desensitized to it again. That said, this experiment has given me confidence that I can, in fact, live without caffeine, so a likely and perhaps desirable scenario is that I will simply start cycling it. Cycling caffeine should also be able to help with the appetite issue, as I could comfortably be at a slight surplus while I’m off caffeine (which will also give me the much needed extra energy) and at a slight deficit while I’m on it, essentially resulting in mini bulking and cutting cycles. Either way, this confidence that I don’t have to depend on caffeine for the rest of my life is perhaps the most important benefit of this little experiment. (And another nice little bonus is that I am OK with drinking decaf coffee now — something that used to seem like blasphemy to me.)

So, the bottom line is that caffeine will continue to be part of my life one way or another. It is a powerful substance, after all, and there is no reason for me to completely ignore its power. However, this experiment has helped me learn to appreciate this power anew and has, hopefully, paved the way for me to use it more mindfully in the future.

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