How to use caffeine to benefit your cycling performance

cyclist drinking coffee

Caffeine and more specifically coffee, plays an important and vital role in society. Cyclist, like most people, are completely addicted to caffeine. “Coffee ride?” and “Let’s stop at the coffee shop” are phrases you will hear every time you go cycling with friends, but have you ever wondered what effect caffeine has on your body and your cycling performance?

I stopped drinking coffee a little less than 5 years ago. Prior to that I spent most of my life drinking coffee every single day. This is a scary thing to admit, given that I am only 22 years old at the time of writing this article. In high school I would easily average 2-3 cups of coffee a day. Some of you may be thinking that that figure is absolutely absurd, while others will brush it off as what you have had before 9am in the morning. Whichever one of those categories you fall into, there is no denying that 2-3 cups of coffee a day is a lot of coffee.

Many people do not know what caffeine is or how it works. Caffeine is categorized as a drug, because it stimulates the central nervous system, causing increased alertness. It creates a “fight or flight” response in the body. Naturally your body is only supposed to experience this once or twice a week, but when you drink coffee it will trigger a fight or flight response every single time. This causes an adrenaline spike and forces sugar into your cells. That is the short explanation, but at least it explains why people who are on caffeine look so “geed up!”

coffee and cycling performance

Before I get deeper into this topic, let me just explain that I am not trying to take away your coffee. It is your life and your choice what you do with it. If you want to drink coffee, go right a head. I also understand that it would be hard to imagine a functioning society without it. Most people live extremely busy, sleep deprived lives and caffeine is one way to cope with that. Who am I to suggest that you drop out of university and quit your job just so that you can get more sleep and drink less coffee? With that said, let’s get into this.

The first thing I noticed when I stopped drinking coffee was how dependent I was on the substance. I used to start every single day by drinking a cup of coffee, first thing in the morning. For at least a month after quitting coffee I craved it, every single morning. It got easier as the weeks went by. I would wake up and feel that intense craving, but instead of drinking a cup of coffee I would drink a bottle of water and walk around the house, while getting ready for school. Eventually the craving would go away. A second thing I noticed was how tired I was all the time. The only thing I wanted to do was sleep. I was sleeping around 10 at night and another 2 hours during the middle of the day. It was nuts! My parents genuinely thought someone was wrong with me. Being me and not wanting to give in to my caffeine addiction, I stuck it out. After a month or two the cravings went away and my life started to return to a sense of normality, meaning I was not sleeping 12 hours a day anymore. What I did notice was that I needed a lot more sleep compared to when I was still drinking coffee. This is true even to this day.

pro cyclist drinking coffee
Cyclists love coffee as much as everyone else, if not more!

After a few months of using absolutely no caffeine, I decided to start experimenting with the substance again. I wanted to know how it will effect my sleep, mood and most importantly my sports performance. So one day I had a cup of coffee, no big deal right? Wrong. I could not believe the effect it had on my body. I was so used to it before that I did not even notice. After not using it for a while and then having just one cup of coffee, containing roughly 60mg of caffeine, it forever changed how I look at the substance. Initially I felt jittery and anxious, but when those effects wore off all I was left with was a sleepless night staring up at the top of my bedroom ceiling.

For a while I was drinking 1-2 cups of coffee a week. I would have it before a hard workout or a running race (I still used to run back then). This was a terrible mistake. I have found that if you try to ration the substance, then it becomes more addictive than ever before. You crave it on the days you are not using it and on the days you are, it feels like you are not using enough of it. If you want to quit caffeine it is better to make a clean break. I am convinced of that.

I quit coffee for good in February of 2016. That is almost 5 years ago. However, since then I have used caffeine numerous times in the form of energy gels during cycling races. I was told by many training partners and coaches, that using caffeine during my cycling events will be good for my performance. I am split on this, but at the moment I have decided that I am better off not using the substance at all. That is why I have not used it for over a year now.

caffeine gels cycling
Energy gels can have a lot of caffeine in them. I have seen ones with 200mg of caffeine in a single gel.

The main benefit I noticed with using a caffeine gel during a cycling race, is that if you use it later on in the race it will make your mind more “active” for the upcoming attacks and likely spring finish. The negatives I have noticed is that it can make you jittery, causing you to do stupid things in the bunch and potentially cause a crash. If you use it at the wrong time it could cause an energy spike, only to drop you back down later on in the race. Caffeine will also suppress your appetite and tell your body that you are not hungry, when you actually are. This is bad because you are far more likely to get dropped because you did not eat enough and “bonked”, than because you did not take a caffeine gel. So for me the pro’s of using caffeine during an event do not outweigh the cons.

I believe that in 99% of cases, you do not need caffeine to improve your performance. The exception lies with endurance events, where sleep deprivation becomes a serious factor to content with. I am talking about 24 hour challenges and 1-3 week long bicycle touring events, such as the Trans Continental Bike Race. With these endurance events, caffeine will definitely help you. You need to be experienced enough to know exactly how much food your body needs, because as I mentioned above caffeine will suppress your appetite. You also need to be careful not to use too much of it on a hot day, because using caffeine on a day when you are sweating a lot can throw out your potassium and magnesium levels, causing dire consequences. So yes, there is a benefit that caffeine can have on your cycling performance, but I would not use it for any reason other than in endurance events when I can not afford to sleep much, if at all.

Caffeine tricks your body into thinking it is not tired. The way I see it, caffeine is like a credit card. You can buy something, but you have to pay for it at some point. You can use the energy provided by caffeine, but eventually you will have to pay it back – with interests!

Caffeine and cycling performance

If you are using caffeine before, during and after training or an event, it will impede your recovery. I think back at all those times in high school I would finish a hard training session on the weekend. I would get home shattered! Instead of taking a well deserved nap, I would have a cup of coffee. Which one do you think would have been better for my performance, having a cup of coffee or taking a nap? We see this not just with competitive athletes involved in endurance sport, but also with the every day person going about his or her 9-5 work schedule. As I mentioned above, we live in a sleep deprived, work orientated world where people must use caffeine to get through their day. In nature, almost all animals will lie down or take a nap after eating a meal. I see this with the two little kittens my family have just adopted. After eating a meal, the usually very active and playful kittens are not interested in doing anything except cuddling up together on the bed or sofa. What do humans do after having a big meal? Well, we have a cup of coffee and get on with our day. Most people feel extremely guilty when sleeping a lot or taking naps in the afternoon, when in actual fact it is the most natural and healthy thing you can do.

cyclist sleeping
Sleep is extremely important for recovery, especially if you are training hard. Caffeine prevents you from having the deep sleep that your body craves and deserves.

For the third time now, I completely understand that your lifestyle may not allow you to cut out caffeine. I look at my sister for example, who is studying medicine at the University of Cape Town. She took my advice and cut out coffee in high school, but now with her extreme work load it is no longer possible and I know she drinks coffee when she has to study late into the night. I wanted to put this information out there, because I know that if it is possible for you to cut out caffeine, that it will have a positive effect on your on life and on your cycling performance. The quality of your sleep will improve, your mood will be more stable and so will your energy levels. Most importantly, cutting out caffeine will drastically improve your recovery time in between workouts. Give it a try!

3 thoughts on “How to use caffeine to benefit your cycling performance

  1. Interesting! I’m not sold on the whole caffeine thing. Maybe my body just doesn’t respond to caffeine much? I had my first coffee in my early 20’s and now I tend to drink a cup or two most mornings, although can go a day or so without. I don’t really feel much different either way. Mostly I grab a cup on a cold winter morning as I like the taste and it warms me up. In the summer I don’t bother (he says with a cup of coffee next to the laptop).

    I’ve felt a hit from the odd caffeine gel, but that could be all in my head. I’ve gone a week or so without caffeine before. Maybe I’ll try extending that and see if I notice anything.

    1. Wow 20 is so old to only have your first coffee then! Good on your parents for not encouraging it at a young age. Try going without any caffeine for a month and then see what the effect is if you start using it again. I would be interested in hearing about it.

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