Caffeine… to some, it’s an elixir of life; a dose of which we feel we can’t do without in the morning to help set us on our way. To others, it’s a perfect drink to sit cradling while catching up with friends, while to many cyclists the coffee stop is a central part of any bike ride.
It’s fair to say cyclists of all abilities, from your Sunday social rider to your Grand Tour pro, love a coffee. But while the taste and culture of the drink is ingrained in cycling, as a stimulant caffeine can have a tangible effect on your riding.
Cycling has a chequered history with ergogenic aids (interventions to improve performance) from legal sports supplements and recovery techniques to illegal substance abuse and needle use. Caffeine itself is ‘monitored’ by anti-doping authorities to guard against misuse since a ban was lifted back in 2004, before which the legal limit was 12 microgram/ml in urine (said to be equivalent of around 6-8 cups of espresso).
But what is the effect of caffeine on cycling performance? And why has caffeine become so ubiquitous with the sport? We've been in touch with two experts to find out.
What is caffeine?
First up, what exactly is caffeine? As our introduction hints, caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system, while it also affects the muscular system thanks to its chemical makeup.
Nigel Mitchell, head of nutrition at Team EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale, users of OTE nutritional products, explains it’s a natural drug that can be found in many foodstuffs.
“It’s a psychoactive drug that’s part of our normal food system and is commonly available," he says. “It’s not dangerous in the way we consume it socially, but in truth it can kill you if you take too much of it (10g is lethal, with around 212mg commonly found in an espresso).
“It can be refined and purified from natural sources, or it can even be synthetically made – if used sensibly, it can be used for a performance benefit."
Katie Mallard, assistant brand manager for HIGH5, says the fast absorption rate of caffeine into the bloodstream makes it particularly convenient for cyclists on the go.
“It has fast absorption through the gastrointestinal tract and can reach the bloodstream within 15-45 minutes of consumption, peaking around one hour," she explains.
What are the benefits of using caffeine?
According to Mitchell, caffeine can affect individuals in different ways, primarily because natural sensitivity and adaptation to the effects can impact upon its perceived effectiveness.
“In individuals it’s hard to quantify exactly how caffeine takes effect because of factors like habitual use, which may reduce the effect of consuming it," says Mitchell. "However, the more we research caffeine, the more we understand the whole impact of it on the body.
benefits of caffeine
- Mental alertness
- Fat burning
- Improved muscle contraction and blood flow
“We know it can increase mental alertness, it can have tangible effects on the contraction of muscle, and it can also assist with fat mobilisation in the diet. It’s worth saying that it doesn’t directly help you to lose fat, but instead makes fat more available to use by the body as an energy source [switching from glycogen to fat].
“In exercise specifically, there is evidence that it may improve physical performance, especially for a time trial-type of effort. However, as I’ve said, optimal dosing is very specific to the individual."
In the case of a sprint effort, the main benefits is as a stimulant for the brain, Mitchell adds, although caffeine may also have a positive effect on muscle contraction, while there is some evidence to suggest it can improve blood flow via vasodilation (the relaxation of blood vessels to help supply blood to working muscles).
Mallard agrees with Mitchell’s assertion that caffeine is proven to have a positive effect on time trial
efforts specifically, with performance-enhancing properties for “sustained maximal endurance exercise".
“Another measured benefit is its role in blocking adenosine receptors in the central nervous system,
which helps prevent the slowing of neural activity, keeping you feeling more alert, vigilant and
reduces the rate of perceived exertion during exercise," she adds. “This is very important in high
intensity exercise, while it has also been seen to help speed up recovery by enhancing glycogen
replenishment after exercise."
Both Mallard and Mitchell agree, however, that the effect of caffeine is diminished as the body adapts to its benefits.
Where can I find caffeine?
In our everyday lives, caffeine can be found in multiple sources, both natural and synthesised.
“Caffeine can be commonly found in your day-to-day diet with coffee being a prime example," says Mallard. “But you’ll also find it in common things like tea, many soft drinks and chocolate.
“Of course, the other place to find caffeine these days is in many sports products – you can have it in capsule form or mixed into gels or energy drinks."
Mitchell explains that the rate of absorption into the body depends on the product, as well as the kind of caffeine found within it.
“For example, a product like Red Bull provides a hit of caffeine and sugar simultaneously, which helps speed up the absorption rate into the bloodstream," he says.
Are there any benefits to using packaged caffeine over natural caffeine?
With caffeine available in so many sources, is there a tangible benefit to using packaged caffeine in the form of gels and energy drinks, over natural caffeine from a cup of coffee?
“The main point to make here is that, with packaged products, you know exactly know how much you’re getting, which makes it far easier to manage dosage and intake," says Mitchell, who pays a lot of attention to individual dosing for optimal benefit in his role as head nutritionist with the WorldTour outfit Team EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale.
“It’s far harder to manage this in coffee form or with foods like chocolate – it’s far easier to take in excess caffeine in these less-controlled items."
Of course, it's also easier to take caffeine on-the-go if it comes as part of a packaged energy gel, rather than having to stop for a cup of coffee - though there's certainly something satisfying about the latter. Meanwhile, Mallard points out that there remains an ongoing debate over which forms of caffeine affect the body in the best way for performance.
“Will your morning cup of coffee give you the same ergogenic effect as when taken in a refined form?" she asks. “The simple answer is no, and this is why High5 uses anhydrous caffeine [with no water] in all our products.
“One major benefit of using sports nutrition for your caffeine hit is that you know exactly how much you’re getting. Caffeine content in coffee can vary quite substantially between brands and sources; they don’t design it specifically for sport performance."
When should I use caffeine for maximum benefit?
You may or may not be interested in getting the precise dosage spot on during your rides, but timing can have an even more important effect on the effectiveness of caffeine.
“In a time trial, you want to be taking caffeine 30-45 minutes before you start so it can get into your system in time," says Mitchell. “You might also take a bit more during the race itself if it’s a long time trial.
“In a road race, you’ll be looking to use caffeine in the latter stages or ahead of making an attack. In this case, as I’ve explained, it will have more of an effect on your central nervous system than on your muscular system, helping to ward off fatigue."
Mallard recommends using caffeinated products an hour before exercise to allow it to reach its peak in the blood stream ready for the beginning of a race or training session. However, the key, she says, is adapting your intake according to your body's response to caffeine and the ride ahead of you, with High5's nutrition guides containing specific advice.
"In a road race, you’ll be looking to use caffeine in the latter stages or ahead of making an attack. It will have more of an effect on your central nervous system than on your muscular system, helping to ward off fatigue"
"Due to variations between athletes, you should consider the level of your training, your habituation to caffeine intake and mode of exercise when coming up with a caffeine use strategy," she says.
Mitchell agrees and encourages curious cyclists to trial caffeine use in training before relying upon it in a sportive, race or even on a long club ride. “You need to find what works for you," he says.
Are there any potential downsides to caffeine?
So far it sounds like caffeine could be something of a magic potion and in specific doses can really help to improve performance at key times. However, there are potential downsides.
“Taking caffeine in high doses can affect sleep quality in some individuals. While it’s absorbed quickly, it takes much longer to be metabolised, so it stays in the system for a long time," says Mitchell. “More acutely, over-stimulation by taking too much [in single or multiple doses] can cause anxiety in some people.
"A lower dosage may better support your needs, because it also eradicates the potential negatives of caffeine," Mitchell adds. "More isn’t always better."
Mallard also warns again over-use and emphasises how the effects of caffeine can be felt in small doses.
"Performance enhancements can be seen when caffeine is consumed in moderate doses of between 3-6mg/kg of body mass, while anything higher than this offers no advantage," she says.
“As with many things, used to excess, caffeine can negatively influence the central nervous system, causing restlessness, increasing heart rates and potentially causing insomnia. It’s here that, if you have a particular sensitivity to caffeine, this should be taken into consideration and you should always seek guidance."
This is especially true if you have underlying health conditions that are exacerbated by caffeine intake, Mallard says.
You may have head of one more potential negative side-effect of caffeine: dehydration. As Mallard explains, plenty has been made of the fact that caffeine has a diuretic effect and can negatively affect your hydration, although during exercise this isn’t necessarily the case.
"Performance enhancements can be seen when caffeine is consumed in moderate doses of between 3-6mg/kg of body mass, while anything higher than this offers no advantage"
“There has been speculation that caffeine can cause dehydration," she states. “While this argument may be true at rest, during exercise there is no significant negative effect on fluid balance and shouldn’t cause any concerns for athletes [other than to stay hydrated and replace fluids and salts as normal]."
Of course, Mitchell also has a message for tested athletes too, who will want to ensure the caffeine they consume is from a tested source suitable for consumption.
“If supplying caffeine to riders, we use caffeine that has the Informed Sport accreditation – we use Healthspan Elite products, for example – which reduces the chance of contaminants [that might return an adverse sample when tested]," he says.
The bottom line
Caffeine consumption has spawned research, argument and critical analysis by nutritional experts all over the world. Through our discussions with both Mitchell and Mallard, we’ve learnt how caffeine can increase mental alertness, help the body burn fat, and potential improve muscle contraction and blood flow. However, potential performance benefits of caffeine - and the optimal dosages required - are very much linked to the individual that consumes it, as well as the demands of the ride at hand.
For many riders, a cup of coffee remains part of the cultural and social experience of cycling, but the fact remains that utilising caffeine smartly can benefit cyclists, as a stimulant for both the central nervous and muscular systems in the body. The science is ever-evolving, but we do know this: caffeine consumption in cycling is here to stay.