By Kevin Kolodziejski
Limburger cheese is an acquired taste that you could come to love — if you’re willing to hold your nose, smear it on rye bread, top it with sliced onion, and eat it that way several different times.
It’s just that you’re unlikely to give any food that smells like stinky feet a second chance. But coffee brewing smells better than any washed and perfumed body part. In fact, it could be an even better food smell than meat barbecuing, onions frying, or cookies baking. So even if you dislike the taste of coffee at first, you’re more likely to try it again and again and guess what? There’s a pretty good chance you wind up a regular drinker as an adult.
According to the Spring 2020 National Coffee Data Trends survey, drinking coffee is a daily occurrence for 62 percent of Americans over the age of 17 — and they are far from sated by a single cup. The average drinker downs a bit more than triple that each day.
Now I’ve never found a coffee survey solely of cyclists, but I’d be willing to bet the price of my best bike that the rate of riders who imbibe and the amount they consume are considerably higher. Knowing what you know, you’d probably place that bet, too.
You know that most group rides, even competitive ones that push the pace and sprint for road signs, include a stop for a little food — and a lot of coffee. And that most of your biking buddies sip a cup while prepping for a ride — except the easy ones headed to a coffee shop. You also know that cyclists especially go for the caffeine that gives the jolt to their joe because research tends to show it aids aerobic exercise.
It’s just that you’d be hard pressed to cite specifics.
Like those from a systematic review of caffeine as an ergogenic aid in endurance time-trial performance published in the August 2108 issue of Sports Medicine. PhD student Kyle Southward at the University of Massey School of Sport, Exercise, and Nutrition in Palmerston North, New Zealand and two professors there considered 46 prior studies and concluded “caffeine has a small but evident effect on endurance performance when taken in moderate doses” which improves “mean power output and time-trial completion time.”
But there’s a caveat with the conclusion: “Differences in responses to caffeine ingestion have been shown.” Two of the 46 studies, in fact, actually reported slower time-trial times when subjects consumed caffeine. Moreover, one of the findings in a paper published in the October 2003 issue of the Journal of Analytical Toxicology compounds matters. This research team purchased the same amount of the same coffee beverage from the same store on six consecutive days and found the caffeine concentration varied dramatically daily, from a low of 259 milligrams to a high of 564 milligrams. Such a variance is significant — and problematic — since the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. (FYI: The 2020-2025 guidelines now call 400 milligrams per day of caffeine for healthy adults “an amount not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects.”) All of the above has caused me to read other research and experiment continually to determine if coffee and caffeine does indeed help my rides and if so, my optimal amount.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned that’s worth passing along.
Initially, sports performance research suggested that the caffeine in coffee — or the caffeine in combination with some of the thousands of polyphenols present in it — increased the percentage of fat you burn during moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise. Burning stored fat allows you to conserve glucose, the body’s preferred fuel for all-but-easy exercise, resulting in better overall endurance and end-of-the-ride performance. A second theory, that under caffeine’s influence, your body’s perception of its perceived rate of exertion lessens, has since emerged. The second theory has led many to dismiss the first. But my experimentation suggests that the coffee or the caffeine in it does indeed do what the systematic review led by Southward maintains, as well as lessen perceived exertion.
Back when I was hellbent on winning races, teaching junior high school, and unable to ride after school because of job commitments, I would often do a two-hour ride featuring a 30-minute simulated time trial or extended intervals before arriving at school for 7:15 a.m. That meant I needed to ride by 4:45 and only eat breakfast at school as I supervised the before-school breakfast program. As long as I had two strong cups of coffee contain about 250 milligrams of caffeine about 45 minutes before the workout progressed past the warmup, I was fine. More than fine really. Maybe it was an example of the placebo effect at its best, but I’d go farther during those simulated time trials in the morning than if I waited until the late afternoon and steered clear of coffee.
This gives the glycogen-sparing theory credibility. Because my blood glucose level would be really low upon arising and before eating, my fat cells would release fatty acids to be broken down for glucose to help fuel the exercise. The caffeine in those two cups of coffee, I believe, expedites the transformation of fat to energy.
It also increases my state of arousal. When I drink two cups of coffee on an empty stomach, I develop something similar to pre-race jitters, that sense that I want to ride — and I want to ride now. If I haven’t over consumed the stuff in the days before.
Part of the early sports-performance research mentioned before discovered that if you abstain from caffeine for at least four days, cease eating three hours before your ride, and ingest the caffeine found in about two cups of coffee, you’ll trigger an even greater breakdown of fatty acids for energy. Talk about killing two birds with one stone! You get sufficient energy for the first hour or two the ride and shed a bit of body fat. Or is it three birds that bite the dust? According to a 2016 Health magazine article, a Spanish study found that those in shape, weighing about 150 pounds and using the caffeine equivalent contained in two cups of coffee to help fuel their workout, burned 15 percent more calories in the three hours following exercise than those who worked out without caffeine.
In short, surveys show nearly 90 percent of adults consume caffeine via coffee, tea, soft drinks, and food products containing cocoa. If you’re part of that group and also a cyclist looking to improve performance, it only makes sense to experiment with how and when you get your caffeine, especially since different people breakdown caffeine differently. A good way to start is by focusing on your coffee consumption. Consider brewing your own, so you have a better idea of how much caffeine you’re getting each time; saving it for special rides, so you don’t develop a tolerance; and eating lightly three hours before consumption or not at all.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.
David K says
At home we abstain from caffeine. However on a recent bike trip on our tandem we faced the ascent of Mt. Ventoux from Bedouin, again. Every year that goes by makes that climb more challenging. The lower segment is steep and thus tough. There is a break at Chateau Reynard before the final ascent that includes a couple 9 percent segments at elevation. This last time I reflected on an old college days trick for studying all night: Coke and coffee. Ever the experimentalist, I ordered a small coffee and bought a 12 oz can of Coke, and mixed the two in my water bottle. Our tandem has never had it so good. We paced ourselves nicely to the summit, even passing a couple singles. Caffeine and sugar, the magic juice!
Kerry Irons says
I never developed a taste for coffee, which I sometimes regretted when I was solo bike touring and fellow campers would offer me a cup in the morning. That said, I have the perfect alternative for those who want the caffeine boost. Coke (or Pepsi, or Mountain Dew, etc.) The combination of simple sugar and caffeine at a mid-ride break gives you a very noticeable boost, particularly if you’ve run down your glycogen stores during a ride. And on hot days that cold drink is just another bonus.