Coffee and cycling go together like beer and brats. It may be because the local coffee shop is the ideal spot to hook up with your buddies for a ride, or because you want to get a quick jolt so you can drop them at the county line sprint. But the simplest explanation lies in the data, which strongly suggest that caffeine improves performance for endurance athletes — cyclists, triathletes, runners, you name it.
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The bulk of research shows that caffeine is beneficial for prolonged, high-intensity exercise, but the enhancement in performance is specific to conditioned athletes (sorry fellas, drinking coffee will not compensate for a lack of training). For example, a study by the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia found that highly trained cyclists completed 15-23% more work during trials where they drank a caffeinated sports drink compared to trials in which they drank a conventional carbohydrate-electrolyte drink.
So how exactly does caffeine boost performance? Time for a brief science lesson. Glycogen, or stored carbohydrates, is the main fuel for muscles when exercising. The dreaded “bonk” happens when glycogen is depleted from your system, usually after about two or three hours of intense exercise. The secondary and more abundant source of fuel is fat. Caffeine mobilizes fat stores and allows your body to use fat as fuel while reserving the glycogen for the more intense periods of your workout. When races last for several hours, burning fat allows you to delay the onset of exhaustion.
OK, you get it: caffeine can be a nice help during a workout. But how about some specifics for turning that cuppa Joe into performance?
Drink your cup of coffee three to four hours before your event or ride. While caffeine levels in your blood will spike much sooner, the effect on fat stores begins to work several hours later.
Decrease your coffee consumption the week leading up to a big event. This allows your tolerance levels to decrease, so you can really reap the benefits. Heavy coffee consumers might do best to skip that afternoon pickup rather than taking a cold turkey approach, which might leave them with the severe headaches and loss of focus caused by caffeine withdrawal.
Consider using a supplement drink like Accelerade with caffeine (which will provide fuel to the working muscles more quickly) for prolonged efforts.
Even after your workout, caffeine keeps working for you. Another study from the University of Georgia (available in the Journal of Pain, if your training partner has a birthday coming up) found that having a cup of coffee prior to your workout can reduce post-exercise muscle soreness by 50 percent. Caffeine may also enhance glycogen resynthesis, shortening the effective recovery phase of exercise. This is critical for those of us who have to stack one hard training session on top of another.
In addition to the physiological effect on muscles, caffeine has also proven to lower the perception of how hard you are actually working, or your Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE). This scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. It runs from 1–10, where 1 feels like you are doing very little and 10 is your VO2 max, or maximal aerobic capacity (a.k.a. going balls to the wall). Caffeine can lower perception by up to 1 point — that could slide you from “I wish I had never been born” to “It wouldn’t be that awful if I died right now” on a tough segment.
So caffeine is a miracle drug, right? But now for the reality check: caffeine delivers diminishing returns with heavy consumption. If you’re the kind of person who makes a pot of coffee at home, then grabs a cup at the office and schedules all your meetings at a coffee shop, you are probably not going to see any more benefit than the one- or two-cup drinker.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition says that while caffeine is effective for enhancing sport performance when consumed in low to moderate doses, increased intake does not result in higher performance. If you want the benefits of drinking coffee without living in fast-forward mode all the time, go for moderate consumption at about 5-6 mg per pound of body weight. For a 150-pound guy, that’s a Grande Starbucks per day. In other words, drink responsibly.