I love drinking coffee with my family at a lazy breakfast, on a cold day exploring San Francisco, or most of all at the end of a long ride with friends.  Coffee tastes amazing and smells glorious; oh, it can also make you faster on the bike.

How it Works

It’s no secret, the world loves coffee largely because it contains caffeine.  As the most widely used drug in the world [1], caffeine has a host of health benefits [2].  When it comes to endurance performance, caffeine has a long history of making cyclists faster [3].  Exactly how caffeine improves cycling performance is up for debate [2, 4], but here’s a good place to start.  Caffeine:

  • Impacts the Central Nervous System (CNS) by competing with adenosine receptors [2].
  • Increases β-endorphin release [5].
  • Reduces RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) [6].
  • Improves reaction time and alertness [7].
  • Decreases reliance on glycogen utilization [8].

For the most part, there’s no other legal supplement more studied and proven to make you faster.  From coffee to soda, you have a lot of choices.  Check out the chart below to see how caffeine stacks up in different products.  For an even more comprehensive list, click on the chart.

Caffeine comparison chart
For a more comprehensive list of caffeine content in different foods and drugs, click on the chart. Caffeine values drawn from “Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. 2013, Ronkonkoma, NY: Linus Learning”

Which method

Classic research suggests the biggest performance improvements come from anhydrous (pill or powder form) caffeine [9].  If you’re comfortable popping pills before a race, anhydrous caffeine might be your best bet.

On a personal level, even though the caffeine content is the same in pill form as in many beverages, drinking a few cups of coffee feels a bit less desperate than swallowing pills behind the reg tent of an office park crit.  Fortunately, new research has shown coffee to be nearly as effective as strait caffeine [10, 11].  I’m sticking to coffee.  So how much should you drink before a ride or race?

How Much to Drink?

First we need to understand how much caffeine it takes to boost your watts.  Research pegs this number between 3-6 mg/kg bodyweight [2].  In practical terms, a cyclist weighing 70kg (154lbs) should aim for at least 210mg of caffeine before a ride or race.

3 mg/kg is a great starting point for getting a performance jolt without negative side effects (anxiety, restlessness, and headaches) [4].  If you reference our chart above, 3 mg/kg is equivalent to about 1-2 cups of 12 ounces of strongly brewed coffee.  We’ve got the quantity down, so when do you drink it?

When to drink?

Traditional caffeine research suggests the more frequently you drink coffee, the more desensitized you become to its performance benefits [12].  For years the recommendation has been to abstain from caffeine for about 4 days before an important event in order to fully realize caffeine’s performance benefit.

If you’ve struggled with backing off your caffeine in the days before a race, you’ll be thrilled to learn of new research suggesting you might not need to [17].  A recent study compared low and high consumers of caffeine and found “habitual caffeine consumption” made no difference to the performance benefit of a caffeine blast before a 30k TT.

What does this mean in a practical sense?  There doesn’t seem to be a need to back off your coffee cup in the days before a race [17].  Hold off for 24hrs and you should be good to go [13].  What about on race day?

Research shows caffeine reaches peak plasma concentration about 45-60 minutes after ingestion [14].  Finish off two cups about 1 hour before your start time and you should be locked and loaded.  Maybe.

Responders and Non Responders

While caffeine seems to be effective for most cyclists, some don’t get a performance boost at all [15].  In short, there appears to be a gene that influences how quickly you metabolize caffeine [16].  Fast metabolizers show greater performance gains from caffeine while slow metabolizers might actually get slower after consuming caffeine.

The takeaway?  Caffeine is probably going to make you faster, but there’s a chance it might actually hurt your performance.  As with every other training intervention or supplement, test it out and see for yourself.

Summary

  • If you’re looking for a safe and legal supplement to help you get faster on the bike, caffeine is your surest bet.
  • Coffee is about as good as caffeine pills at boosting cycling performance.
  • It takes at least 3 mg/kg of caffeine to improve performance.  Lower doses don’t do much.
  • 2 cups of strongly brewed coffee is a good reference point for the 3mg/kg caffeine threshold of a 70kg cyclist.
  • Traditional research says to abstain from coffee for 4 days before an important event but new research suggests this isn’t necessary.  Hold off for 24hrs and you should be good.
  • Drink your coffee 45-60 minutes before the start of your race.
  • There’s a chance caffeine could make you slower.  Test it out before you settle on a regular race routine.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

Edit History

*9/29/17-Added new research on caffeine habituation [17]
*9/29/17-Added published research on caffeine and DNA [16]

References

1.  Astorino, T.A. and D.W. Roberson, Efficacy of acute caffeine ingestion for short-term high-intensity exercise performance: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(1): p. 257-65.
2.  Goldstein, E.R., et al., International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010. 7(1): p. 1-15.
3.  Desbrow, B., et al., The effects of different doses of caffeine on endurance cycling time trial performance. J Sports Sci, 2012. 30(2): p. 115-20.
4.  Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, P., CSCS*D, CISSN Jose Antonio, PhD, FNSCA, FISSN, CSCS, Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. 2013, Ronkonkoma, NY: Linus Learning. 404.
5.  Laurent, D., et al., Effects of caffeine on muscle glycogen utilization and the neuroendocrine axis during exercise. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 2000. 85(6): p. 2170-5.
6.  Doherty, M. and P.M. Smith, Effects of caffeine ingestion on rating of perceived exertion during and after exercise: a meta-analysis. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2005. 15(2): p. 69-78.
7.  Clubley, M., et al., Effects of caffeine and cyclizine alone and in combination on human performance, subjective effects and EEG activity. Br J Clin Pharmacol, 1979. 7(2): p. U57-63.
8.  Ivy, J.L., et al., Influence of caffeine and carbohydrate feedings on endurance performance. Med Sci Sports, 1979. 11(1): p. 6-11.
9.  Graham, T.E., E. Hibbert, and P. Sathasivam, Metabolic and exercise endurance effects of coffee and caffeine ingestion. J Appl Physiol (1985), 1998. 85(3): p. 883-9.
10.  Higgins, S., C.R. Straight, and R.D. Lewis, The Effects of Preexercise Caffeinated Coffee Ingestion on Endurance Performance: An Evidence-Based Review. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2016. 26(3): p. 221-39.
11.  Hodgson, A.B., R.K. Randell, and A.E. Jeukendrup, The Metabolic and Performance Effects of Caffeine Compared to Coffee during Endurance Exercise. PLoS ONE, 2013. 8(4): p. e59561.
12.  Robertson, D., et al., Tolerance to the humoral and hemodynamic effects of caffeine in man. J Clin Invest, 1981. 67(4): p. 1111-7.
13.  Fisher, S.M., et al., Influence of caffeine on exercise performance in habitual caffeine users. Int J Sports Med, 1986. 7(5): p. 276-80.
14.  Robertson, D., et al., Effects of caffeine on plasma renin activity, catecholamines and blood pressure. N Engl J Med, 1978. 298(4): p. 181-6.
15.  Wiles, J.D., et al., The effects of caffeine ingestion on performance time, speed and power during a laboratory-based 1 km cycling time-trial. J Sports Sci, 2006. 24(11): p. 1165-71.
16.  Pickering, C. and J. Kiely, Are the Current Guidelines on Caffeine Use in Sport Optimal for Everyone? Inter-individual Variation in Caffeine Ergogenicity, and a Move Towards Personalised Sports Nutrition. Sports Medicine, 2017.
17.  Goncalves, L.S., et al., Dispelling the myth that habitual caffeine consumption influences the performance response to acute caffeine supplementation. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2017: p. jap 00260 2017.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now Founder/Head Coach at Data Driven Athlete, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.