Caffeine and exercise are like batman and robin — you can have one without the other, but put them together, and you’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Coffee and endurance sports are synonymous. You’ll find cyclists flocking to the nearest coffee shop, runners topping up their caffeine stores before they hit the trails, and ultrarunners sipping a cup of joe to stay awake running late into the night.
And while coffee is delicious (or at least most people will agree), it can also increase sports and endurance performance. That includes a reduced perception of pain, improved focus and concentration, and perhaps even an increased aerobic capacity — but more on this shortly.
How does caffeine work?
The neurotransmitter adenosine naturally builds up in the bloodstream the longer you’re awake. This is what makes us feel tired.
Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors to increase alertness and reduce fatigue, triggering the release of adrenaline from the brain and body.
Ingesting caffeine before or during exercise may provide many benefits, including a reduced perception of pain and perhaps even an increased aerobic capacity.
How does caffeine enhance athletic performance?
Research mentions that caffeine has a direct effect on the central nervous system, improving alertness, and reducing your reaction times and perceived exertion.
But it doesn’t end there — a cup of coffee or your chosen source of caffeine may increase maximal fat oxidation and aerobic capacity.
Caffeine is also known to increase time to exhaustion and may be effective at increasing VO2 max in elite athletes, contributing to increased endurance performance, as stated in one study.
You’re likely to see the most benefits when ingesting caffeine in the morning and early afternoon (when fat oxidation and aerobic capacity are typically lower), to see performance benefits, as found by research.
And while drinking a cup of coffee before your ride won’t turn you into an 80 ml/kg/min Tour de France rider, it may improve your performance and reduce your fatigue, to some extent.
What about weightlifting?
The science surrounding caffeine and weightlifting is often inconsistent and widely open to interpretation.
In particular, ingesting caffeine before a strength session appears more likely to increase upper-body strength improvements compared to lower-body exercises, as found by a meta-analysis.
If we take what we already know about caffeine — e.g. reduced perceived exertion, increased alertness, and a more wakeful state — then it would make sense that caffeine before a strength session will translate to some improvement in performance.
Should you use caffeine as part of your fuelling strategy?
Whether or not you choose to take caffeine is up to you — some people worship a cup of coffee, and others are more sensitive to caffeine and don’t like the way it makes them feel.
Consequently, ingesting caffeine before or during a training session will likely enhance athletic performance. Your time to exertion increases, and you become more focused — perfect for a long ride or mid-race.
If you’re a fan of caffeine, consider using it as part of your fuelling strategy.
How athletes use caffeine
Many endurance athletes use caffeine in training and competition.
The “coffee stop” is a must for riders, and the pros are no different. Although, you won’t find them stopping for a jolt of caffeine during the Tour de France. Just ask Chris Froome, who once said: “who needs drugs? I get up mountains fuelled by espresso laced with honey.”
Athletes use caffeine before and during training to get the most performance benefits.
Caffeine timing — when to take it
Should you polish off a cup of coffee and head straight out the door for your workout, or should you drink it sooner?
Ultimately, it’s up to you. However, most experts recommend taking caffeine 30-60 minutes before exercise.
If you know caffeine has a particularly intense diuretic effect on you (i.e. it makes you need the bathroom), it’s a good idea to wait before exercising for obvious reasons.
Alongside ingesting caffeine before exercise, you can also take caffeine during exercise to maintain focus and maximise performance.
An example caffeine ingestion strategy
Let’s say you’ve got a 3-hour training ride planned in the morning.
To fuel correctly, you might choose to drink a double espresso (approx 125 mg of caffeine), followed up with a coffee stop mid-ride, or a caffeine gel, such as the Styrkr Gel30 that provides 150mg of caffeine. You’d also want to satisfy that 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour recommendation.
Avoid drinking caffeine too late in the day — a regular cut-off time for most people is 2-3 pm. Caffeine ingested too late in the day may negatively affect your sleep, both in how long it takes you to fall asleep, and your overall sleep quality.
And if you’re competing, you might choose to limit caffeine intake in the week(s) leading up to your event. Although not necessary, limiting your intake may provide more profound effects on performance come race day.
What are the side effects of caffeine?
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others — a single cup of coffee gives them the “caffeine jitters” and may increase anxiety.
If this sounds like you, it’s best to avoid caffeine, or avoid large doses of caffeine.
Caffeine side effects may include:
- Shakiness (the caffeine jitters)
- Fast heart rate
- An increased need to pee or use the bathroom
You’re more likely to experience side effects if you consume caffeine with no food and at higher doses.
Typically, anywhere from 3-6 mg per kg of body weight is the recommended amount of caffeine for most athletes.
So if you’re 80 KG, that’s approximately 240 mg of caffeine. The FDA cites 400mg of caffeine as a maximum safe recommendation per day (approximately 4-5 cups of coffee). Just something to keep in mind!
Is caffeine diuretic?
Caffeine increases the excretion of sodium from the kidneys and has a diuretic effect — this is why you’re more likely to need the bathroom after coffee. However, it is not thought to dehydrate you.
Although, if you’re training long or in hot weather and consuming caffeine, it’s even more important to take on electrolytes that contain sodium.
Caffeine products — what is best?
A regular cup of coffee or an espresso is a common vice for most cyclists and endurance athletes.
But that’s the only way to ingest caffeine — you can also take:
- Energy gels that contain caffeine
- Energy drinks
- Electrolyte mixes (caffeine included)
- Caffeine powders
- Energy drink containing caffeine
- Caffeine pills and powders
- Caffeine chewing gum
Coffee before a ride or a run is usually the best option. But taking caffeine mid-workout may help you perform at a higher intensity with less fatigue.
It might even increase speed or power for as long as 2 hours, according to a study.
The Styrkr GEL30 contains 150mg of caffeine and 30g of carbohydrates, perfect for that mid-workout pick-me-up. If you’re not a fan of gels and you’re going long, you can also try the MIX90 caffeine dual-carb energy drink mix.
The final sip
When used correctly, caffeine can enhance athletic performance.
Enjoy a cup of coffee before your ride, run, or workout, and top up with a caffeine gel or a coffee stop when going long for maximum performance benefits.
Add caffeine to your nutrition strategy and find out what works best for you.
We’ll see you at the Café.
How does caffeine impact athletic performance?
Caffeine can reduce pain perception, and improve alertness, focus, and reaction times. It’s a very popular stimulant for athletic performance.
Is caffeine good for sports performance?
Yes! Caffeine is good for sports performance and is used by the majority of athletes, especially endurance athletes.
What are the negative effects of caffeine in sports?
Taking too much caffeine (or if caffeine does not agree with you), may lead to increased anxiety and irritability. For this reason, monitor your caffeine intake and aim to consume no more than 400mg per day, as recommended by the FDA.