Does coffee improve cycling performance?
Tom Owen dives head first into every cyclist’s favourite brew to discover why it’s so much more than a cyclist’s social ritual
Cast your eye around a cycle cafe at 8am on a Saturday and you’ll see at least one group of lycra-clad ladies supping flat whites, americanos and – for those of a continental persuasion – strong, earthy doppios. But, why are we so enamoured by the dark, delicious brew?
Perhaps it’s an inherited habit we’ve picked up from the pros? Eddy Merckx famously rode in a jersey sponsored by Faema, the maker of commercial coffee machines. Meanwhile, Fausto Coppi allegedly stopped mid-way through the Milan–Sanremo for a quick espresso – and still won the race.
Then there’s the shady alleged practice of using ‘finish bottles’ in the professional peloton – a special bidon that’s kept in the team car until the final few kilometres of a tough stage.
This is usually filled with up to eight shots of espresso, a dollop of honey to make it more palatable, and some crushed-up painkillers. Each rider will have a different preference for the exact make-up of their finish bottle, but coffee – and lots of it – seems to be the most consistent ingredient.
We definitely DO NOT recommend adopting this practice, but the point is that coffee – or caffeine, at least – is a powerful drug that can radically impact the way you cycle. But how does it achieve those effects?
The first thing coffee does to your brainbox is inhibit the production of adenosine, a hormone that has a generally calming effect, and is also responsible for letting you know when you’re tired. As a result, you get sharper and demonstrate quicker reactions.
Katie Mallard from sports nutrition brand High5 confirmed this to Road Cycling UK. “[A benefit of caffeine] is its role in blocking adenosine receptors in the central nervous system,” she says. “These help to prevent the slowing of neural activity, keeping you feeling more alert, vigilant and [reducing] the rate of perceived exertion during exercise.”
Full of beans
So, that’s what it does to the brain, but exactly how does that translate to cycling performance? A study at Birmingham University found that a dose of as little as 0.5mg of caffeine per kilo of body weight was enough to have a significant measurable effect on cycling performance. The University of Alicante went even further, discovering that riders dosed with 0.7mg per kilo of body weight did the best in the test, riding considerably longer than their less-hopped-up rivals.
How do these milligrams relate to actual cups of coffee? Unless it’s brewed extremely weak, a single cup of coffee should have – minimum – 50mg of caffeine in it, but a cup can contain as much as 250 or 300mg. The average is around the 100mg mark, which means a single cup should nearly always be enough to get you to that magical 0.7mg per kilogram of body weight cited by our friends at the University of Alicante.
A pre-ride black coffee in the morning is widely believed to be a handy way to kickstart your metabolism and help you burn more fat while out training, but this is a misconception. What caffeine really does is make more fat available to your body to burn.
The benefits of coffee for cyclists aren’t limited to the pre-ride ritual, though. Drinking an americano at the end of your ride (as long as you don’t finish too late in the day, that is) may help your body recover better. “[Caffeine] has been seen to help speed up recovery by enhancing glycogen replenishment after exercise,” explains Katie.
This was confirmed by a study conducted in Australia, which showed that when riders refuelled with carbohydrates and caffeine after a ride, they accumulated 66 per cent more muscle glycogen than riders who consumed only carbs.
Steady as you go
Of course, caffeine is no wonder drug and has its downsides, such as giving you an anxious feeling or maddening sleepless nights if you have overindulged. As with other chemicals, our bodies can also build up a tolerance to caffeine, with reduced effects for those who drink it too often, or low moods when our daily fix is suddenly withdrawn.
The moral, then – as with most things – is to drink coffee in moderation. Use it wisely when cycling for that extra little push, and always enjoy responsibly after a great group ride.