Everyone has heard a myth or two when it comes to caffeine and cycling. But the fact that cyclists love it seems to be the only thing that we can all agree on.
Some say that a double espresso before setting off on a road race will increase your performance – others wouldn’t touch anything apart from a caffeinated gel. So we decided to ask an expert whether caffeine even works as an aid to cycling performance, and if so, when we should use it.
We got on the phone to Danielle Clay, a former international road cyclist and downhill mountain bike racer who has spent her whole life working with world-class athletes. She’s now a dietician and lecturer in sports nutrition at Leeds Trinity University, with 17 years of experience in her field.
In other words: she knows what she’s talking about and was very patient with TWC.
Can caffeine benefit cycling performance?
Yes. Caffeine stimulates you mentally at first, and physically later. “You may feel a little bit smarter and a little bit stronger. There is some evidence that caffeine improves muscle contraction,” says Danielle.
Caffeine has a glycogen sparing effect. Glycogen is the storage molecule for carbohydrates, and we start to use it up when we exercise. If we don’t replace it, then we have to ingest more carbohydrates.
But by taking caffeine in, we can stimulate our ability to break down fat instead of glycogen, which means there’s more glycogen available for longer compared to if we hadn’t have caffeine.
That means when you come to the final stages of a race after having had caffeine, you’re not as glycogen depleted and you’ve still got some sugar from carbohydrates stored in the liver and the muscles ready to be used.
When should I consume caffeine?
“No one seems to agree on anything when it comes to caffeine!” says Danielle. “From the 70s to the 80s to the 90s, everybody has changed their minds. But I think that the best research that we have currently is that caffeine’s greatest benefit is in endurance events, and it needs to be ingested much earlier than we ever thought.
“I suggest to my athletes that they ingest caffeine about two hours before an event so they get the full effect.”
Two hours before an event may seem like a long time – especially when those of us who drink coffee feel a boost very shortly after a cup. And that boost is real, cognitively at least. But what anecdotal and common-sense evidence suggests is that we get a second boost from caffeine after a longer period, when the caffeine is being broken down by our bodies into a different, but equally potent, chemical.
How much caffeine should I consume?
“There was a piece of research done fairly recently that suggested that ingesting between three and nine cups of coffee would be of benefit. Now that’s a massive range!”
Sensibly, Danielle suggests you do a bit of experimenting in order to work out what amount will work best for you.
“Play around with it. The best time to do that is during training, because during an event you may develop negative symptoms from ingesting too much caffeine.
“Pick a hard training session, like a chain gang session, and ingest the caffeine a couple of hours before. If you drink a lot of caffeine, have three cups and see how you feel.
“You may find that that’s way too much – some people feel nauseous, anxious, or get gastro-intestinal disturbance. Some will find it will disturb their sleep as well.”
If you’re not used to drinking caffeine, start with one small cup of coffee. It’s difficult to tell how much of an effect it’s having because you only have a previous session to measure against, but you should feel slightly stimulated while training.
If you’re having negative symptoms, it doesn’t mean that the caffeine is not working, it just means that you’re quite sensitive to it and you need to lower your dose.
“But if you’re already drinking five cups a day, you’re going to have to ramp the amount right up!” says Danielle.
What can I do to improve my performance if I don’t want to use caffeine?
A low G.I (Glycemic Index) diet will improve your energy levels throughout the day. The Glycemic Index concerns how quickly the carbohydrate from food will enter your bloodstream: a low G.I diet will allow your body to have a steady release of sugars throughout the day.
Danielle suggests “adequately spacing your protein requirements throughout the day, and making sure every snack and every meal has some protein in it. This can be animal protein, eggs, nuts, seeds, diary products, cottage cheese or milk.
“It doesn’t have to be animal products, but every meal and snack should have some protein. So never eat an apple or an orange on it’s own – have a small handful of nuts with it.“
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