Maximise the Benefits of Caffeine for Performance

How much coffee can and should you drink to ensure you make the most of caffeine's legal performance enhancement.

By Namrita Brooke |

Nine in 10 adults have caffeine at least once a day and 25 percent of us consume it three or more times a day, according to the International Food Information Council.

While there are plenty of reasons to consume caffeine, including getting that morning pick-me-up that many of us crave, cyclists can gain some real advantages for their performance. And to help you maximise the benefits of caffeine, researchers have looked into specifics like timing your intake and best sources.

So, to help you make the most of your caffeine consumption for both your rides and your life, we uncovered the science and asked experts for tips. Here’s what you’ll gain from regularly downing coffee or tea, and then how to maximise the benefits.

The Benefits of Caffeine for Cyclists

Although you feel may feel a little extra energy in your muscles after you consume caffeine, it’s really your brain that reacts to it.

More specifically, when our body breaks down caffeine, the resulting chemicals bond to receptors of a neurotransmitter known as adenosine. When adenosine becomes elevated—which happens when we exercise more—it makes us feel tired. But because caffeine blocks the receptors, it lowers this sleep-promoting effect and keeps us from dragging, explains Nicholas Luden, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at James Madison University.

In addition to just waking you up, caffeine is also a recognised performance enhancer. A cup of coffee or gels with a jolt mostly work because they stimulate the central nervous system (helping tame that tiredness chemical), but research also indicates caffeine can improve muscle contraction and reduce the perception of pain or effort, which could help you push through tough rides for longer.

In fact, a research review shows that about 2 to 6 milligrams per kilo bodyweight (which equals about two to four cups for a 7okg rider) can improve your endurance by 2 to 4 percent and mean power output by nearly 3 percent. Studies within that review also point to improvements in strength with caffeine consumption.

If you want to see these improvements, we break down the science and pick up expert tips to steer you toward more energy.

1. Try Taking a Break

Anecdotally, when some coffee drinkers skip a day or two of their java jolt, they find that next cup is more energising. So, researchers at James Madison University wondered: If you don’t have a caffeinated drink or supplement for a day or so, and then you re-caffeinate, will the effect be better for performance?

To test this, the researchers had 10 male and female participants do time trials on cycle ergometers. There were two parts to the research, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

During part one, eight hours before the time trials, the subjects either consumed 1.5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight or a placebo with no caffeine. Then, in part two, the subjects either received 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram bodyweight or a placebo. They got this one hour before the time trials. On multiple test days, researchers repeated these time trials and caffeine doses four times.

Luden, the lead study author, says the goal of the research was to look at what would happen when caffeine was cleared from the bloodstream and to determine if pre-exercise dosage immediately before cycling would have its greatest effect possible.

In the end, the cyclists were more likely to get a positive boost from caffeine just before the event if the previous dose had cleared from their bloodstream.

The takeaway: Skip your regular morning cup of coffee and have it about an hour before a ride (instead of hours before). Keep in mind some people can experience negative withdrawal effects in just three to six hours. Experiment with different caffeine doses (1 to 3 milligrams per pound bodyweight) in this time. Heavy caffeine users may need more an hour before a ride.

2. Figure Out the Right Amount for You

Your response to caffeine will depend on several factors like genetics, gender, hormonal activity, and diet. But how quickly you experience a jolt (and how intense it is) also depends on how much you drink or eat rather than what form you ingest, Kelli Santiago, RD, and owner of Inso Sports Nutrition tells Bicycling.

That’s because in most forms, caffeine is highly bioavailable, says Santiago, meaning that it can move quickly from the digestive tract to the bloodstream. No matter the caffeine source, it typically peaks in concentration within 30 minutes to an hour.

As mentioned, research suggests consuming caffeine in amounts of 3 to 6 milligrams per kilogram bodyweight or 1 to 3 milligrams per pound bodyweight. To put this in perspective a 250ml cup of coffee contains around 90 milligrams of caffeine, but here is how other caffeine products compare, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI):

  • 1 cup of black tea = 86 mg
  • 1 cup of green tea = 58 mg
  • 450ml (grande) Starbucks blonde roast = 360 mg
  • 400ml (medium) Dunkin’ Donuts = 210 mg

3. Get in Caffeine Midride When Going Long

“Caffeine benefits endurance athletes the most when consumed about 30 to 60 minutes before a training session or race,” says Santiago.

However, while peak concentrations of caffeine occur between 30 to 120 minutes after ingestion, the half-life of caffeine can range from 1.5 to 10 hours. This means that, depending on multiple factors—how much you ingested, the duration of the ride, timing of intake, and how quickly it’s metabolised—some riders could benefit from additional caffeine intake during a ride or race.

As for how much and when to take in more caffeine in the middle of your ride, think about timing it three to four hours after your pre-ride caffeine and at least 30 minutes before when you might need a burst of energy (e.g. on a hard climb at the end of a ride). Practice taking a gel (most of which have about 20 to 50 milligrams of caffeine) right before that time.

For a three-hour ride, most people should only need caffeine right before. But if you metabolise caffeine quickly or you didn’t get that 1 to 3 milligrams per pound bodyweight before the ride, go for additional caffeine 60 to 90 minutes into the ride.

Remember: “It all really depends on when the rider tends to start feeling fatigued and what they can tolerate,” when it comes to your mid-ride caffeine consumption, Santiago says. That’s why you want to try out timing and amounts before big rides or races.

4. Don’t Go Overboard

There is a limit on how much caffeine you should consume. “Keep an eye on your intake when you’re using caffeine to maximise your performance,” says Luden. Excessive caffeine can cause a rapid heart rate, shaking hands, or a feeling of anxiety or nervousness, which won’t do anything to help you ride stronger and faster.

To avoid negative side effects, aim to keep your total caffeine dose to less than 3 milligrams per pound bodyweight a day (which, for many people, is about two to four cups of coffee).

“If you’re a habitual consumer, it’s best to consider the amount you may have ingested the past six hours, as this is what has the potential to influence total caffeine load in circulation,” Luden says. “In my opinion, it’s not necessary to consume caffeine beyond normal consumption to have a quality workout.”

Reserve caffeine supplementation (above normal consumption) for key workouts or race situations, he adds—if you need it at all.

5. Drink Up After a Ride

Replenishing fluids after a cycling session is necessary, but recharging your system with an iced latte also has its perks. In fact, some evidence suggests faster glycogen replenishment when you ingest caffeine with your post-ride carbs, compared to just carbs alone.

Though caffeine is often thought of as a diuretic or dehydrating, studies have shown this isn’t quite the case.

“You may want to replenish with fluid lost via sweat while also jolting your postworkout energy levels with a caffeinated beverage, so you don’t feel tired and crash too soon,” Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook tells Bicycling. “Just as chocolate milk is an excellent recovery food, coffee with milk (like a sweetened latte) is a suitable way to get some of the carbs and protein needed to recover from a tough workout.”

Though caffeine is often thought of as a diuretic or dehydrating, studies have shown this isn’t quite the case. For example, research published in PLOS One found that when comparing caffeine consumption to water ingestion in 50 adult males who were habitual caffeine users (consuming three to six cups a day), no significant differences were found in their hydration levels, as noted by urine hydration markers and body mass measurements, between when they drank water and when they drank caffeine.

One catch: If drinking postride caffeine will compromise your sleep, it might be best to avoid it and keep your recovery nutrition focused on getting enough carbohydrates to replenish glycogen.

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