Cycling and caffeine go together like bread and jam. It’s a partnership borne out of tradition and a potential training benefit. But does caffeine really make us ride further or faster? Does a coffee stop offer us more than just a chance to sit down for half an hour and trade lies about our cycling achievements? Is it a placebo effect or is there a genuine benefit?
Caffeine is a member of a group of chemicals called methylxanthines. These occur naturally in plants such as cocoa, tea and coffee beans. It is also added to gels and sports drinks for that caffeine hit. Taken in moderation, it has a series of benefits for both everyday life and cycling.
What caffeine can do for you
Caffeine has both physiological and psychological benefits. It stimulates the central nervous system and overcomes a chemical called adenosine in the brain. Adenosine is a calming chemical that makes us feel relaxed. The combined effect is your feeling more alert and reacting faster to stimuli.
Another psychological benefit of caffeine is that it lowers the awareness of effort. This is of significant interest to cyclists and a reason caffeine is used in gels. While your body may be working harder than ever, the full extent of that effort doesn’t make it as far as your consciousness. So your perception of the effort you’re putting in can be underestimated considerably.
Caffeine also has a physiological effect in that it delays the use of glycogen as a fuel source. By causing more fat to be metabolised for fuel, caffeine has a mild fat burning effect that can help prolong glycogen stored during exercise.
The two physiological downsides to caffeine have fortunately been proved false. Caffeine is no longer thought of as a diuretic so won’t cause more nature breaks than usual. The previously held belief that it messes with the body’s natural temperature regulation has also been debunked.
How much caffeine should I take?
Currently, it is thought that between 3-6mg per kilo of body weight is ideal. However other studies have shown that as little as 0.5-0.7mg can have a benefit too. Scientists can’t really make their mind up about this one so it will probably be down to you to experiment.
Caffeine in healthy doses gives enough of a boost to be worth the effort but not so much to cause any long term issues. The trouble is, coffee isn’t measured like that in the jar so it’s a little up in the air if you want to make your own.
250ml mug of tea = 40-70mg of caffeine
250ml mug of coffee = 50-85mg of caffeine
250ml mug of filtered coffee = 75-160mg of caffeine
330ml can of Cola = 10-70mg of caffeine
250ml stimulant drink (Red Bull type) = 25-90mg of caffeine
Amounts vary depending on the brand of product you use so these are typical ranges for the most popular brands.
Warning signs of having too much caffeine are a feeling of anxiety or feeling jittery, a racing heart when it shouldn’t be or a fluttering heartbeat. If you’re experimenting with caffeine and experience any of these, dial it back a bit and reassess.
As more cyclists begin using caffeine as a training tool more data should begin appearing. Some gel manufacturers are adding it to their gels for an added boost, so the science should get an equal boost once they have been used a while. In the meantime, feel free to experiment with caffeine in your routine and see if it has any benefits. Let us know how you get on!