Have you ever noticed that many cyclists are coffee addicts? From the ubiquitous café stop to Tom Danielson’s own , the bond between cycling and coffee is strong. Caffeine is also an ergogenic aid, so the association with cofffee is no accident.
Caffeine is a great example of the spectrum spanning nutrition, supplementation, and doping. Prior to 2004, caffeine was a banned substance in urine concentrations greater than 12 mg/L. This is equivalent to drinking an entire pot of coffee, and most studies show that caffeine in such large amounts does not increase performance.
From a doping perspective, few would argue that drinking a sugary drink during a race is doping, although it is also a well established ergogenic aid. Personally, I’m glad to see that having a cup of coffee before a race is equally accepted. With doping rules, like many intoxicants/substances in society, it is not always clear why some are allowed and others are not. I think the ubiquity of caffeine (75% of Americans are regular coffee drinkers) has a lot to do with its acceptance in endurance sports.
Caffeine is currently only on the ‘monitored list’. This means that caffeine is still part of IOC/WADA testing, but the levels encountered are only watched to monitor trends/usage/etc.
The scientific consensus is that caffeine ingestion enhances performance. Exactly how it enhances performance is less understood. Caffeine mostly works to delay fatigue during exercise.
Caffeine is understood to increase utilization of fat as a fuel source. This spares muscle glycogen stores, which are the primary limiting factor in long endurance sports like a cycling road race.
More obviously, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. Another model of fatigue is the ‘central governor theory’ which states that the central nervous system is responsible for decreasing the strength of muscle contractions to prevent damage. Caffeine is associated with decreased RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion), and may increase output by making the workload ‘feel easier’, and/or by improving mental focus.
Caffeine can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure. It can also cause anxiety, which is detrimental on race day. Contrary to popular belief, caffeine is not a diuretic. In fact I’m so sure you won’t believe me, I’ll even add a .
Habituation / Tolerance
Most critically, the effects of caffeine can only be properly ascertained with an understanding of tolerance. Some effects of caffeine are decreased after a few days of continuous use (increased heart rate & blood pressure), but other effects (alertness) are not. A recent cycling study (Irwen et al., 2011) showed no difference between regular and non-users of caffeine; both groups had the same performance benefit.
The half-life of caffeine in the body can vary, but is usually about 5 hours, with peak levels in the bloodstream after about 60 minutes after ingestion.
My Take / Recommendations
I love coffee in all forms. I’ve been hooked on my french press for years, but now have a home espresso machine that I use a lot. There is actually a bit less caffeine in espresso since the beans aren’t in contact with the water for as long. I tend to drink a bit more coffee on race day than a normal day as part of my pre-race routine. I also use caffeinated Clif Shots and Bloks during races.
Most current recommendations suggest 3 mg/kg of caffeine 60 minutes prior to exercise, followed by 1 mg/kg every two hours throughout the event.
If you don’t like coffee and/or the side effects of caffeine, you can take your caffeine in non-coffee form just before or during a longer race. I doubt you’ll notice the side effects during the middle of a race.