The good news: Caffeine is great for cycling!
The bad news: You shouldn’t have too much….
Coffee and cycling go hand in hand, like yin and yang, or night and day. And the good news is, coffee and caffeine is great for your workouts! Let us explain why….
What is caffeine?
Unlike many stimulants, caffeine is a natural chemical, found in a range of seeds, nuts and leaves of plants – such as coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa beans.
In the science world, caffeine is known as ‘central nervous system stimulant,’ and it works by blocking the chemicals in the body that cause drowsiness, as well as stimulating our autonomic nervous system – the system that controls and regulates the majority of our bodily functions.
How does caffeine actually improve our riding?
Having a cup of coffee or tea makes us feel great – and can make us ride faster and more effectively. That’s a result of the caffeine working its magic. But how is it actually improving our ride? What is it doing?
The key impacts of caffeine for a cyclist are:
Feeling more alert is of course a great benefit on a bike ride. Firstly, it’s key for your safety – being aware of traffic on the road or hazards on the trail will ensure you keep the bike upright!
Being mentally alert will make you better physically as well – and that’s why so many of us drink coffee before a race, or use caffeinated energy gels. Increased concentration allows us to focus on our form and technique, concentrate on our lines, and gives us more resolve to complete our intervals or hold on to the bunch at our group ride or race. If you’re mentally fatigued, will power, grit and determination takes a hit and it can take our competitive instincts with it.
INCREASED RATE OF FAT BURNING
Caffeine makes fat rather than glycogen (carbohydrate) more available as an energy source. However, that doesn’t mean you’re going to lose weight as you sit at your desk while you drink your morning cup of coffee – you need to be burning energy, as you would be on a ride.
By burning fat before carbohydrate as you pedal, you’re saving your carbohydrate stores for later in the ride. This is a great advantage over longer rides, as you only have a limited carbohydrate store, but even the skinniest of us have a huge supply of fat to draw on. So you want to save that carbohydrate as much as possible!
IMPROVED BLOOD FLOW AND MUSCLE CONTRACTION
Caffeine leads to vasodilation – the expansion of our blood vessels, and so more oxygen-carrying blood can move around our body – and this oxygen gives us more fuel to pedal. Additionally, caffeine can improve the strength and speed of our muscle contractions – and of course, this is going to help us pedal harder and faster.
How much caffeine do you need?
Testing has proven that you require somewhere between 3 – 6mg of caffeine per kg body mass to see a performance boost. So, a 60kg rider will need a minimum of 180mg caffeine, or an 80kg rider will need a minimum of 240mg.
Before you go crazy and start drinking all the coffee in the house before you ride, start slowly with the caffeine – try for 3mg / kg first and if you don’t think that has much impact, try a bit more.
Everyone has a different tolerance of caffeine, depending on how much they drink it on a day-to-day basis, so you need to find where your threshold lies. Having too much caffeine on a regular basis isn’t great for your heart, and having too much on any one particular day certainly isn’t a fun experience either, and can lead to things such as:
It is typically recommended you take no more than c.400mg caffeine per day.
When should I take caffeine for my ride or race?
Just as everyone has a different tolerance to caffeine quantity, it can impact different people at different rates. However, for most people, caffeine peaks in the bloodstream 1-2 hours after ingestion, but, it can start having an impact within 30 minutes. As such, if you aim to take on board some caffeine around an hour before a race, you should be set to feel the benefits early on in the action.
The speed at which you absorb caffeine can be impacted by what you take with it, with sugar speeding the rate at which it has an impact – hence why specially-formulated sports gels containing caffeine and carbs are so effective.
Caffeine has a ‘half life’ of around 5-6 hours. That means if you consume 200mg caffeine at 8am, you will still have around 100mg in your bloodstream 5-6 hours later. Because of the way that the caffeine content of your blood decreases over time, many who are going on long rides or races top up with caffeine gels or drinks on the bike, or of course, have a good old-fashioned coffee stop.
If you are planning to start using caffeine for competition or events, we recommend testing how you react to it first – so make sure you try it in your training a few times before slamming the espressos before a race!
How much caffeine is there in the most commonly available drinks and products?
Please note teas / coffees etc vary by type and brew method and so the above should only be used as an approximate guide.