Coffee shops are always filled with cyclists sipping espressos. While, like us, they probably love the taste of coffee, there’s another reason the drink is so popular with cyclists — caffeine’s performance-enhancing effects.
Many people are surprised to learn that caffeine is the world’s most popular performance-enhancing drug.
That’s why until 2004, The International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) limited athletes to a maximum concentration of 12 μg (micrograms) of caffeine per ml of urine — or roughly the equivalent of six to eight cups of coffee an hour prior to performance.
Of course that leads to the question, why is something as common as caffeine on a list of controlled substances? To answer that, let’s look at how caffeine affects the body.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system. More precisely, it blocks a neurotransmitter known as adenosine. Because one of adenosine’s primary actions is to regulate nerve cell activity and to make us calm and sleepy, caffeine prevents us from feeling fatigue.
However, that isn’t caffeine’s only effect. When adenosine is blocked, exercise seems much easier, because we don’t perceive pain and exhaustion the same way. Instead, caffeine helps us concentrate better, feel more alert, and experience better recruitment of muscles. It even improves our mood!
So, what specifically can athletes expect if they use caffeine? Let’s take a deeper look at how caffeine affects performance.
Caffeine has been shown to help athletes:
- Improve Endurance — As we already mentioned, caffeine reduces the perception of intensity, difficulty, pain, and exertion. As a result, athletes are able to exercise at a higher intensity for longer, while prolonging time to exhaustion. This is especially important for long-distance endurance athletes, but caffeine helps athletes of all types. In fact, studies for endurance exercise, as well as short, high-intensity exercise, conclude that caffeine makes exercise effort seem roughly 6% easier.
- Enhance Cognitive Performance — Everyone knows cognitive performance is important on the job. However, few people consider its importance during exercise where alertness and focus impact quality of the session, or help us keep form during last miles of the marathon.
- Promote Recovery — Caffeine may also quicken glycogen replenishment after a workout. A post-exercise drink with 4g/kg carbohydrate and 8 mg/kg caffeine showed a 66% increase in glycogen resynthesis when compared to a carbohydrate-only drink. This is especially important when you’re doing two workouts a day or when you need to quickly replenish your glycogen stores for the next day’s workout in a stage race.
Bottom line, caffeine can improve overall athletic performance. That probably explains the long-standing relationship between coffee and cycling, as evidenced by Faema sponsoring a Tour de France team, and Intelligentsia continuing the tradition with a team in the Red Hook criteriums.
As you can see, cycling and caffeine clearly have a strong association … but before you use caffeine to enhance your cycling performance, you’re probably wondering, is it good for you?
To answer that, let’s separate the myths from the facts.
One of the most frequently repeated myths about caffeine is that it’s dehydrating. Actually, that isn’t true. That’s a myth that’s been debunked by multiple military studies on soldiers in Iraq.
Another myth in the sports community is that drinking Coke during a race can give caffeine benefits. While we love Coke, the amount of caffeine you get in a swig of it isn’t enough to have an effect. It’s mostly the simple sugars in Coke that give you a kick!
So, now that we’ve debunked some popular myths, you may be eager to start using caffeine during training. Not so fast — there are some potential side effects you should be aware of before making any immediate changes to your training regimen.
Those potential side effects include:
- “Coffee Stomach” — Unfortunately, our bodies don’t digest milk (protein) well. For that reason, you’ll want to avoid milk-based caffeinated drinks immediately prior to a race.
- Elevated Heart Rate — In addition to experiencing an elevated heart rate, you may also feel jittery, particularly if you’re already nervous. So, test your response to caffeine incrementally, making sure not to overdo it. According to the Mayo Clinic, maximum safe consumption of caffeine is 400mg a day (that’s a lot!). Still, studies show performance benefits from a moderate consumption of caffeine (3–6 mg/kg), so there’s no need to overdo it.
- Insomnia — If you ingest caffeine too late in the day, you may have trouble falling asleep. So, you’ll definitely want to avoid consuming caffeine at least 10–12 hours before your bedtime. That’ll give you adequate time to get it completely out of your system before you go to sleep. For instance, try to have your last cup of coffee no later than 1pm when you plan to go to bed at midnight.
First, some brief background on the coffee bean. Coffee’s a cherry that grows on a tree. The seed of that cherry is the coffee bean. These green seeds are dried, roasted, and turned into coffees around the world. Most caffeine found in other products is extracted directly from those beans. This process leaves us with many caffeine products to choose from. We’ve listed caffeine content of some common products:
Many athletes use caffeine for races, and those that don’t, often abstain because of stomach issues. If you decide to use caffeine in your race, here are a few things you’ll want to consider:
- When Should I Take Caffeine? — This is something you’ll want to experiment with, because fast metabolizers break down caffeine more quickly. That said, most studies suggest taking caffeine 60 minutes before a race. Peak blood plasma levels are reached 60–100 minutes after intake, meaning you’ll experience the highest level of caffeine in your bloodstream for the start of the event, only needing to maintain that level throughout the day.
- How Much Caffeine Should I Take? — Research indicates that for a performance-enhancing effect, 3–6mg/kg (1.14–1.7mg/lb) of caffeine needs to be consumed. So, as an example, a 75kg (165lb) male would consume 225–450mg. Spread over 9–12 hours of an Ironman event, that’s anywhere from 20–50mg an hour — a caffeinated Stinger gel has 32mg. Exceeding this caffeine range won’t enhance performance effects, although it will increase the likelihood of unwelcome side effects.
- Which Form of Caffeine Should I Use? — This comes down to personal preference. In the morning, we enjoy a cup of coffee. During a race, we typically stick to caffeinated gels, chews, or pills. Experiment to figure out what works best for your body.
- What If I Drink Coffee Every Day? — If you’re a habitual coffee drinker, adding more caffeine won’t have the same impact on performance. Instead, you may want to opt for a caffeine detox prior to your race. Many regular coffee drinkers will often “quit coffee” 3–4 days in advance of a race, so they can maximize the “kick” they get on the big day. For some, that may be too much to ask, and as coffee enthusiasts ourselves, we totally understand.
Now that you’ve learned how caffeine affects performance, you’re probably eager to incorporate it into your training. To get started, just follow this easy 3-step action plan we developed:
- Test Caffeine Products: Start testing caffeine products during training to see how your body reacts. Identify which forms you prefer and what dosage gives you the best results.
- Abstain from Coffee: Ideally, you’ll want to quit drinking coffee in the days leading up to the race (we know it’s hard!). That will allow you to maximize the effects of caffeine on race day.
- Time Your Caffeine Consumption: For the best results, you’ll want to consume caffeine 60 minutes before the start of your race. Then, continue to consume caffeine throughout the race to maintain those results.
Bottom line — by experimenting with caffeine, you may not only find racing easier, but you’ll also stand a good chance of performing better. Just remember that as with anything else, moderation is key. Good luck!
About the author
phantastic is a superhuman performance lab, on a mission to help athletes reimagine the possible and realize their potential. We are a team of athletes, coaches, and scientists. But more importantly hackers, tinkerers and experimenters, obsessed with chasing faster.
About the illustrator
Irena Gajić is an illustrator based in Belgrade. Her wonderful work is influenced by her architectural background, and we love it!
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