An enormous research review of 420 scientific papers confirms what the many coffee-loving cyclists know: caffeine can improve performance on virtually every level.
Caffeine doses of 3 to 6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (about 200 to 400 milligrams, or two to four 8-oz cups, for a 150-pound rider) can bump your endurance by 2 to 4 percent.
Habitual caffeine users get the same performance boost as infrequent users, so you don’t need to abstain before an event to get benefits.
Whether it’s a shot of espresso or a little Red Bull to “give you wings,” many active folks use caffeine to boost their athletic performance. Now a massive research review confirms this practice: a well-timed coffee (or your caffeine source of choice) can improve nearly every aspect of your exercise performance.
For the paper, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers pored through 420 studies on caffeine and exercise, and drafted an official stand on the world’s most popular performance-enhancing drug.
The majority of studies found that caffeine has a positive effect on exercise performance, including improving muscular endurance (hello, hill climbing!), movement velocity (key for producing power in those pedals), muscle strength, sprinting, jumping, throwing, and other aspects of aerobic and anaerobic performance.
Endurance athletes like cyclists appear to get the most consistent benefits, with caffeine doses of 3 to 6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (about 200 to 400 milligrams, or two to four 8-oz cups, for a 150 lb. rider) improving endurance by 2 to 4 percent. That dosage also increases mean power output—how many watts you crank—by nearly 3 percent.
Mentally, caffeine also improves cognitive function, especially attention. Unsurprisingly, for anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter, it also can sharpen mental and physical performance when you’re short on sleep (though caffeine is no substitute for proper shut-eye).
If coffee isn’t your cup of tea, so to speak, research shows alternative sources of caffeine such as caffeinated chewing gum, energy gels and chews, energy drinks, supplements, and mouth rinses also improve performance in aerobic exercise like cycling.
The best time to take your caffeine is about an hour before you start, because it takes about that long for it to reach peak concentration in your circulation. That said, the research shows that caffeine is most beneficial during times where there is an accumulation of fatigue. So if you’re out for a century—or a multi-hour gravel adventure—that double espresso or handful of caffeinated chews may be most helpful about three quarters of the way through.
Caffeine works its magic primarily as a central nervous system stimulant. It also appears to improve muscle contraction, as well as reduce the perception of pain during exercise, which in turn makes hard exercise feel easier.
Of course, not everyone responds the same way. Over 95 percent of caffeine is metabolized by the CYP1A2 enzyme, which is influenced by our genes. The result: some people are fast caffeine metabolizers and some are slow metabolizers. Some (though not all) studies found that fast metabolizers seem to reap the most performance benefits from caffeine. Only a genetic test can tell you what type of metabolizer you are. But you can certainly see for yourself if caffeine makes you feel better and enhances your performance.
For people who are more sensitive to caffeine and/or those who are more prone to anxiety, caffeine can lead to heightened feelings of anxiety and be counterproductive. Taken late in the day, it can also disrupt sleep, hindering recovery and performance. So it’s important to experiment with the amounts and timing that work best for your unique physiology.
Finally, good news for caffeine junkies in the room: contrary to what you may have heard, you don’t need to go cold turkey and cut out caffeine in the days leading up to an event to maximize the performance-enhancing benefits. (In fact, one would argue having headaches and mood swings leading into your event could put a real damper on your performance.) Though the scientists note that more research is needed in this area, the paper found that when it comes to reaping performance benefits, there is no consistent difference between regular caffeine users and those who don’t regularly use caffeine. We’ll raise a doppio to that!
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