Coach Feb / March 2020: Coach on Caffeine

We all enjoy a good cup of coffee before, during and after our rides. Coffee and cycling seem to be inextricably linked, and a casual roll past the local coffee spots in the early hours of the morning will demonstrate this point.

The bikes are parked outside while the cyclists enjoy a flat white pretending not to be constantly checking out their bikes to make sure someone doesn’t run off with it. Apart from the great taste of a well-brewed cup of coffee, the magic ingredient, caffeine does have some notable performance benefits. In this article, we will discuss why, if you aren’t using caffeine at the moment, you might want to consider it.

Why does caffeine improve our performance?

Caffeine is a stimulant which exerts its effect on our brains and this results in a reduction in our perceived exertion. In other words, riding at a given intensity will feel easier when using caffeine compared to no caffeine. The performance benefits of caffeine have been extensively investigated with a wide range of doses and protocols all showing a performance benefit.

How much caffeine do you need?

One important point to make early on is that you don’t need to drink coffee to use caffeine. Yes, coffee does contain caffeine, but the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary substantially. Filter coffee, espresso, aeropress, pods or instant coffee (let’s be honest here, that isn’t coffee), all contain different amounts of caffeine. To further complicate matters, the amount of caffeine in an espresso, for example,
can vary greatly depending on the beans used, the machine used, etc. So, if you are looking at using caffeine as an ergogenic aid, you might want to use a form of caffeine that will allow a more accurate dose and a more predictable effect. If you are particularly sensitive to caffeine (you lucky fish), ensuring that you can control the dose will be very important.

Caffeine has been shown to improve performance in endurance events of a wide range of durations. Caffeine is available in pill and powder form, and recently a low-dose chewing gum has hit the market. Consuming 3 – 6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body mass, one hour before training or racing is a well-established protocol. A 70 kg rider, should then aim to consume between 210 – 420 mg of caffeine 1 hour before they head out on the bike. However, performance improvements are all possible with lower doses of <200 mg. It is important to note that higher doses (>9 mg/kg) could have adverse effects, so more is NOT better. During training or racing, topping up with smaller doses of caffeine (100 mg – 300 mg) can assist in delaying fatigue and improve performance, especially in the final kilometres of a race.

Caffeine can also assist with repeated efforts of a shorter duration, such as those that make up an interval session. Once again, moderate doses taken 1 hour before exercise can result in an improved performance in repeated high-intensity efforts. Doing more work (higher average power output) during intervals, will result in a greater training stimulus. A higher training stimulus, provided there is sufficient recovery after, may result in an increased adaptation and an improved performance. Using caffeine in training, especially for harder sessions, should also be considered.

In summary, caffeine in low doses can improve endurance performance. Athletes who are considering using caffeine during races should ensure that they experiment with it in training and less important races first.

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