Will Caffeine Make You a Faster Cyclist?

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If there is one thing that fits with the culture of cycling, it's coffee and caffeine. Before Gatorade ever came along, diluted and de-fizzed cola was (and often remains) the sports drink of choice, especially near the end of an endurance event. I know my cappuccino machine saved my sanity during a long summer way back when I was writing up my doctoral dissertation, and it remains heavily abused in my diet today.

Caffeine Pharmacology

What is caffeine? Caffeine is a chemical in the methylxanthine group of alkaloids. It has a wide range of effects on your body, especially on the nervous and cardiovascular systems. In more general terms, it's a stimulant that prepares your brain and body for "action." As such, some general effects include an increase in heart rate, dilation of blood vessels to ease blood flow throughout the body, and generalized excitation of the central nervous system and its sensitivity to stimulation.

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As with any drug though, there are side effects, with the intensity of the side effects generally increasing with dosage. The primary sites for these effects are the nervous and cardiovascular system, including tremors, impairments in motor control and coordination, anxiety, very high and irregular heart rhythms.

Caffeine Junkies

Caffeine is clearly a drug with a high level of popularity and dependency. A standard 250 mL cup of coffee contains 70 to 180 mg of caffeine depending on the method of preparation. Tea has much less caffeine at 20 to 35 mg per cup, and soda has about 30 to 40 mg.

Even the growing popularity of energy drinks has featured an arms race to pump greater and greater amounts of caffeine than the competition. As an example, Red Bull has about 80 mg of caffeine per 250 mL cup, twice that of Coke. But the fastest method of caffeine effect is through gum, as the caffeine enters the bloodstream through the blood vessels of the mouth and tongue, rather than the delayed effect of transit and absorption through the intestines.

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The effect of any dose depends on many factors, including body mass, tolerance, etc. Moderate consumption (250 mg) produces strong feelings of elation and peacefulness in subjects, while also improving their performance in several simple mental and motor performance tasks (7). In contrast, subjects that ingest a high dose (500 mg) experienced more unpleasant effects (anxiety, nausea, heart palpitations) while also impairing their task performance. Name of the game: as always, moderation is key and more is not necessarily better.

The other side of caffeine dependency is the development of drug tolerance, with a reduction in the stimulant effects of acute caffeine doses in mice receiving steady infusion of caffeine along with motor-sensory and mood depression in the first couple of days following the stopping of caffeine infusion (8). Trained runners also experienced a dampening of the stimulatory effects of acute caffeine ingestion following six weeks of high caffeine ingestion (1).

So from the above, it is clear that moderation is important. If you are serious about using caffeine as an ergogenic aid rather than an excuse to drink coffee, you need to taper off the regular use of caffeine as much as possible and save its use for prior to and during actual events. If you still want the post-ride coffee, consider going decaf.

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On the Road

Of course, science is pointless to discuss if caffeine actually did not work as an ergogenic aid. The scientific literature is pretty clear that, used correctly, caffeine does indeed help to improve performance on the bike, especially short-term, high-intensity efforts. Bell and McLellan (2) found that time to exhaustion during a high-intensity effort (80-percent VO2max) was greatly increased following caffeine dosing, and that the benefit was maintained when the same test was performed in the afternoon, suggesting that re-dosing was not needed for multi-event competitions.

In contrast to high-intensity exercise, the benefits of caffeine use during prolonged endurance exercise is somewhat less clear. A Scottish study had eight highly-trained cyclists perform 100K time trial, interspersed with periodic high-intensity 1K and 4K efforts, and found no benefit with caffeine ingestion (5). Meanwhile, military researchers in Canada found minimal benefits from caffeine ingestion prior to a 10 km run with helmet and backpack (3). Finally, compared with carbohydrate ingestion, caffeine had no further additive benefit during 120-minute cycling efforts (6).

Train First, Coffee Later

No ergogenic aid is going to turn a donkey into a thoroughbred, and supplements are only the finishing touches on top of solid training. Proof? Trained swimmers ingesting caffeine had significant improvements in the swimming velocity, whereas untrained swimmers were found to have absolutely no benefit from caffeine ingestion (4). So get out riding before you break out the cappuccino maker.

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