Can Caffeine Perk Up Your Ride?

The truth about how caffeine can rev up your cycling performance.

I have a confession: Before teaching a 6 a.m. cycle class, I try to have half a banana with my coffee but sometimes I don’t have enough time to. The coffee part of the equation is non-negotiable, however: 1½ mugs of coffee are an absolute must for me before an early morning indoor cycling class. Part of the reason is I need the jolt of java to clear the cobwebs that are lingering in my sleepy head and make me feel confident that I can form coherent sentences when I teach the class (an essential job requirement!).

It's also because the caffeine helps my body wake up and get ready to exert some energy.

After all, caffeine is widely known to boost mental alertness, energy, and the ability to focus and concentrate. It offers many health benefits from relieving headaches to reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and various forms of cancer. And many athletes recognize (and use!) caffeine as a performance-enhancing supplement. There’s strong research to support these latter benefits, in particular.


Caffeine and Cycling Performance

In a 2015 study from Brazil, researchers found that when cyclists ingested caffeine (a dose of 5 mg. per kilogram of body weight) an hour before cycling at a steady state for 30 minutes, they gained a 23 percent improvement in their time to exhaustion (a mark of endurance) than when they consumed a placebo. (Some perspective: 5 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight translates into about 340 mg of caffeine for someone who weighs 150 pounds.

A 12-ounce serving of coffee often contains 150 to 260 mg. of caffeine, depending on how and where it’s made.)

Meanwhile, in a 2015 study, researchers from the University of Oklahoma had cyclists consume caffeine or a placebo 60 minutes before a cycling strength challenge, followed by a time trial: The caffeine improved their maximal strength and motor recruitment of their knee extensors by 6 percent during the strength challenge and reduced the muscle pain they experienced and their ratings of perceived exertion (RPE).

What’s more, the caffeine kicked up the cyclists’ time-trial performance by 5 percent, compared to a placebo.

If you can consume caffeine with a few carbohydrates (such as my half-a-banana routine, plus java), that may be even better. A 2012 study from James Madison University in Virginia found that when indoor cyclists performed steady-state cycling, followed by a simulated time trial, after consuming caffeine, a carbohydrate, caffeine plus carbs, or a placebo, the combo of caffeine and carbs led to improved time-trial performance but the other conditions didn’t.

Caffeine’s Added Calorie-Burning Perks

Believe it or not, the combination of caffeine and cycling exercise also can lead to a greater expenditure of calories than a given workout alone provides, according to a 2014 study from Australia. An added benefit: The caffeinated cyclists perceived the workout as less difficult and more enjoyable. This suggests that having a cup or two of Joe (or the caffeine equivalent) ahead of time could provide a serious benefit for using indoor cycling to help you lose weight or maintain your weight over time!

Caffeine and Hydration

Traditionally, athletes have been warned about the risk of dehydration with caffeine consumption but this concern appears to be unfounded. A review of studies on the subject, published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, found that caffeine and water have similar diuretic and fluid retention effects as each other. In other words, the fluid in a serving of coffee actually helps with hydration! The review concluded that: “athletes and recreational enthusiasts will not incur detrimental fluid-electrolyte imbalances if they consume [caffeinated beverages] in moderation.” So go ahead and cross that item off the worry list! But do be sure to consume plenty of water or an electrolyte-containing beverage during and after an indoor cycling workout, to ensure that you stay well hydrated as you sweat buckets.

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