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Can caffeine make you ride your bike faster?

Science of caffeine
James Witts
19 Nov 2019

It's the drugs of choice for almost every rider, and there's ever-increasing evidence that caffeine makes you faster.

Cyclists love coffee, not just because it is warm, delicious and goes great with cake, but also because it contains the stimulant caffeine, the psychoactive drug that makes you feel all awake.

Question is: does it actually make you ride your bike any faster? Cyclist sent James Witts to investigate.

Caffeine is so effective because you have caffeine receptors all over your body, even in the brain, according to elite performance nutritionist Sophie Killer, a specialist on the world’s number one drug.

‘In my opinion it’s the perfect ergogenic aid [physical performance enhancer],’ she says. Indeed the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) once banned caffeine, which could be evidence enough of its performance benefits. It’s proven to lower the perception of fatigue, improve concentration and increase the body’s available energy by mobilising fatty acids.

And there’s more. A recent study has revealed new information about how caffeine can boost the performance of athletes in a glycogen-depleted state. It was carried out by Dr James Morton of Liverpool John Moores University, who’s also a nutritionist for Team Sky (now Ineos).

‘We’ve just finished a study where we took athletes who were in a glycogen depleted state in the morning and got them to run to exhaustion after either taking a carbohydrate rinse or carbohydrate rinse plus caffeine,’ he says. ‘What we’ve seen is exercise capacity increases with the caffeine.’ 

The experiment involved eight athletes performing high-intensity (HIT) running to exhaustion in the evening, then refraining from carbohydrate intake post-exercise. The next morning, the athletes performed steady-state exercise (around 65% of VO2 max) followed by HIT running to exhaustion, interspersed with one-minute recovery walks. 

Subjects completed trials having consumed one of the following three combinations: placebo capsules and placebo mouthwash; placebo capsules and a mouth rinse containing 10% carbohydrate; or caffeine capsules (200mg per dose) plus 10% carb mouth rinse.

In the long run

The results were dramatic. While heart rate, lactate and glycogen levels were similar across the board when the athletes ingested caffeine, they significantly outran the other two tests. ‘The subjects ran for 20-30 minutes longer fuelled by caffeine than with just the placebo combination,’ adds Morton. ‘It seems the improvement came down to an effect on the central nervous system.’

Caffeine acting on the neurological system is not news, but applying that knowledge to a study focusing on fasted individuals is. Clearly this could be beneficial for when a rider is either low on energy stores or has digestion issues and can’t tolerate any more carbohydrate.

‘Such nutritional strategies may also be advantageous for athletes who incorporate elements of training in carbohydrate-restricted states into their training programme in an attempt to strategically enhance mitochondrial adaptations of skeletal muscle,’ Morton’s paper concludes.

In other words, you can boost your body’s energy powerhouses (the mitochondria) with a caffeine hit and a carb mouth rinse. There are numerous ways the pros integrate fasted sessions into their programmes but one of the simplest is to have dinner around 6pm, awake to a glass of water and double espresso, arm yourself with a bottle of energy drink but, when out on the training ride, swill and spit rather than swallow.

You should always have an energy bar to hand in case you feel dizzy but, in the long run, it will make you a more efficient fat-burner.

Giving it the beans

Does caffeine make you faster

The most effective way to ingest caffeine has also been the subject of recent scientific analysis.

‘A colleague of mine, Dr Adrian Hodgson, investigated whether ingesting caffeine in pill or coffee form had a different impact,’ says Killer. ‘About 20 years ago, a study concluded that coffee didn’t work as well as caffeine alone because of the other compounds in it. Hodgson didn’t believe that and tried to prove as much.’ 

He took eight cyclists and triathletes who habitually drunk less than 300mg of caffeine per day. They cycled for 30mins at 60% of their maximum power output followed by a time-trial that lasted 30-45 minutes.

This was repeated four times: after taking caffeine dissolved in water; after drinking instant coffee; after drinking decaf coffee; and after drinking a placebo. Improvements in time-trial time were 4.9% and 4.7% respectively for the caffeine and coffee trials over the placebo. ‘Basically, whether you ingest caffeine in pill or coffee form has no impact,’ concludes Killer.

How much you take does make a difference, of course. The above example involved two large cups of coffee (around 400mg). For an 80kg rider, that equates to 5mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight, which is pretty high.

‘Like anything, you can have too much of a good thing,’ says Killer. ‘That would really raise the heart rate, which would result in increased anxiety and would affect sleep. Instead, around 3-4mg/kg is proven to have a positive, safer impact.

For an 80kg rider, this would be between 240mg and 320mg of caffeine. That might equate to having a strong coffee before a race and then topping up with gels, which contain about 40mg of caffeine.’

Anti dehydration

It’s often suggested that caffeine will leave your mouth dryer than the parched parcours of the Vuelta, but according to Killer and her team of researchers, there’s no evidence of dehydration with moderate coffee intake.

In fact they undertook a study of 50 coffee drinkers who habitually consumed three to six cups each day and found coffee was as effective as water at maintaining hydration levels. 

‘That said, it seems that you become more habituated to caffeine depending on how much and how regularly you’re drinking it,’ says Killer. ‘Data from my study showed that if you are a habitual caffeine user, you are unlikely to become dehydrated consuming daily moderate intakes.

Other studies show that moderate or high doses in non-users, known as caffeine naive, are more likely to result in diuresis.’ So if you’re not a regular caffeine user, make sure you drink enough water too. Do that and you can join the legion of pros and amateurs who are reaping the multiple benefits of caffeine.

• For more information on the benefits of caffeine for cyclists, runners, and athletes, click here.

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