Caffeine & the Cyclist
To Caffeinate or Not to Caffeinate: That is the Question.
As a quick glance at the energy product aisle at your local bike or triathlon shop will show, caffeine is a common ingredient in many energy products meant to be consumed during training or racing. Caffeine has been one of those old-time remedies for late in the race fatigue. In the 1970’s many marathoners would drink a de-fizzed cola late in the race. Is caffeine really that helpful as to make a difference in your next triathlon, century ride or race? The short answer is “yes” for most, though not all, cyclists.
How Caffeine Helps the Athlete:
The effort doesn’t feel as hard. Caffeine is shown to alter your fatigue and pain perception and release of endorphins and cortisol during high levels of exertion.
As fat-burner for fuel: During an endurance event, caffeine is thought to enhance the body’s ability to use fat as an exercise fuel, and thus spare the body’s limited carbohydrate store.
To help you go long: Caffeine can help get fuel to the muscles quicker during a long-training session or race enabling athletes to work harder for a longer period of time. A study from the University of Birmingham showed that caffeine sped up the absorption of carbohydrates in the intestines, enabling it to quickly become fuel for working muscles. So take some caffeine along with that sports drink, gel or bar during your race!
As a Recovery Aid: Caffeine can help you feel better after exercise. A recent study from the University of Georgia found that pre-exercise caffeine intake reduced post-exercise muscle soreness by 50 percent. Alternatively, another study from Australia showed benefits to cyclists who added caffeine to their post-exercise meal had 66% more glycogen in their muscles than those who ate only carbohydrates. Caffeine was shown to help the body refuel after exercise.
When it doesn’t work:
The Sprinters: Caffeine doesn’t have a noticeable effect for a sprint-distance race, especially those lasting less than a minute. This study has been duplicated many times, including one with female soccer players using Red Bull.
The habitually caffeinated: Caffeine just doesn’t have the same benefits to aid racers and endurance athletes who have become “caffeine tolerant.” Athletes who are regular caffeine users should avoid caffeine in the 4-6 days before a race or endurance event to get the most benefits from using caffeine during the event.
Those who never use caffeine: Caffeine can have many unpleasant side effects such as anxiety, jitters, gastro-intestinal distress, heart arrhythmia and more. Some people have sensitivity to caffeine and that isn’t something you want to find out in an important race or century ride. Just follow the old wisdom of never trying anything in a race that hasn’t worked for you in training.
The Untrained: Caffeine can’t make up for the fact that you haven’t put in the training. Studies have shown that caffeine’s benefits to endurance athletes don’t apply to the untrained or non-athletes. (But then again, untrained subjects have a hard time reliably training to the exhaustion point.)
How Top Cyclists are Using It:
Rebecca Rusch, the three-time winner of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race told me last year how she uses caffeine in the form of a Red Bull Shot (Red Bull is one of her sponsors) in this extremely tough mountain biking race:
“I try to save those for the last of the race, when I’ve got nothing else, such as during the Columbine climb which is the last climb of the race at mile 80. I had to walk a couple parts, you can barely ride it. I had a (Red Bull) shot right at the base of that—you’re kind of running on fumes at that point and I like those shots. They are a lot more portable than the can obviously. It doesn’t have the carbonation so it’s easier to slam that down. It’s a trial and error kind of thing, it’s like coffee in the morning, some days are better than others. But I always like to have one, like a last resort.”
Most athletes seem to agree it helps, but few of the top amateurs know how much to use for their best performance. At the Ironman World Championship, 73% of athletes who were interviewed reported that they used caffeinated products to help them improve their performance on the course and 84% said that caffeine improved their concentration during the race. But very few knew how much caffeine they needed to improve their performance or even the caffeine content of common foods and beverages.
What is a moderate versus a high dosage of caffeine? A moderate dosage is about 3-6 mg per kilogram of body weight. Just think of it this way, a 132 lb woman is 60 kg and a “moderate dosage” is 180-360 mg. of caffeine. A 12-oz. Coca-Cola has 35 mg, 2 Extra-strength Excedrin tablets (one dose) is 130 mg. and a Clif Shot Double Expresso gel contains 100 mg.
Are there differences in the way women and men absorb caffeine? Yes, there are some subtle differences in the way women process caffeine than men, but much more research needs to be done in that area. One thing that female athletes may want to keep in mind is that many drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee or tea, can block the absorption of iron (and it may not be the caffeine per se.) Female athletes have higher needs for iron and are more likely to have iron-deficient anemia than male athletes, so it’s something to keep in mind.
Is it legal for professional athletes? The World Doping Agency took caffeine off its list of banned substances in 2004. Scientific studies had shown that very high doses of caffeine weren’t boosting athletic performance (and sometimes high levels actually hindered performance) while moderate doses which could help performance were the equivalent of “social doses,” or in other words, a few cups of coffee.
Is caffeine going to contribute to dehydration during a race? Although caffeine has long been perceived as a diuretic, it has since been shown that a person has to drink at least the equivalent of 8 cups of coffees to get to that point. The diuretic effect is reduced when caffeine is consumed during exercise. Caffeine does not significantly alter the body’s water balance or temperature during exercise.
Recommendations from Kaitlyn Stevens from the research & development dept. of GU Energy Labs:
“Our gels with regular caffeine have 20mg (of caffeine) per packet. You should plan on ingesting roughly 2 gels per hour; this would equal a total caffeine intake of 40mg. Double those values for the double caffeine versions.
We’ve based these levels on sound, scientific research that showed ~1-3mg/kg of caffeine is as effective (for sport) as a 7-9mg/kg per serving. We wanted to keep our caffeine levels conservative, therefore ingesting two packets (40mg and 80mg, single and double caffeine versions respectively) per hour is comparable to half cup of coffee.”
Timing: Caffeine intake is subject to distance and personal preference – each person is an experiment of one. It takes roughly one hour for caffeine levels to peak in the bloodstream. Therefore, using GU before, and throughout an endurance event (every 30-45min), you can potentially maintain peak levels of caffeine, without overloading.”
Colleen Cooke, our friend from CLIF Bar Co. says that several flavors of CLIF SHOT energy gels and CLIF SHOT BLOKS include caffeine because “caffeine boosts athletic performance by stimulating the central nervous system, increasing adrenaline and increasing fat-durn. Current sports science shows that caffeine does not cause dehydration when consumed during activity.”
CLIF SHOT BLOKS: Black Cherry and Cola each contain 50mg of caffeine per serving—about a half cup of coffee. Orange contains 25mg of caffeine per serving.
CLIF SHOT: Strawberry contains 25mg of caffeine, Mocha has 50mg and Double Expresso or Chocolate Cherry is loaded with 100mg of caffeine—twice the caffeine of any other energy gel on the market.