QUESTION: How much caffeine do I need cycling? – Christopher N
Stan Purdum replies: In answering your question, I assume by “need,” you mean “How much caffeine is beneficial to my cycling performance?”
It’s a good question because virtually all the studies on how caffeine affects riding conclude that in general, a limited dose — such as the quantity you might consume in a couple of cups of coffee — can modestly increase your speed and endurance during vigorous cycling. But for most riders, the beneficial effects don’t increase by ingesting more caffeine at the same time. Taking some in later in a long ride might provide a boost, however.
In all of this, there is considerable variation in the effect of caffeine from one person to the next. In other words, one’s genetic makeup has considerable bearing on how much performance help caffeine will provide. In some controlled tests, a few athletes got no boost at all from caffeine and a few others saw their performance metrics actually decrease.
Given these variables, it’s a good idea to experiment and keep track of how much performance benefit, if any, you receive from caffeine and what amount is sufficient to trigger that effect. General guidelines say that 300 mg for a 150-lb rider is usually an optimum quantity for performance improvement.
The form in which you consume caffeine seems not to matter a lot in terms of performance — coffee, tea, soft drinks, gels, energy drinks, pills or powders. However, it’s quite easy to take in too much of the stimulant with pills and powders, so you are better to stay with the food and drink sources. Even there, though, since caffeine content can vary so widely from one source to another — even from one brand of coffee to another — it’s a good idea to learn which ones give you the amount of caffeine you are seeking, and then stay with that regiment on ride days.
If you are a competitive cyclist, be aware that because caffeine is a stimulant, it is on the list of substances that agencies that oversee professional sports monitor. For a 20-year period ending in 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency, banned high levels of caffeine from competition. While not banned now, WADA still monitors it. And as recently as 2017, there were rumbles that WADA was studying afresh whether it should be moved to the banned list. That hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), on the other hand, does consider caffeine use to be doping if an athlete has a urinary test of greater than 12 mg per liter. For most riders, that still leaves from room for a couple of regular cups of coffee an hour prior to your urine screening. But other medications you may legitimately take can affect the rate at which caffeine clears your body, so you want to know if that’s the case for your medicines.
If you’re interested in more detail on the effects of caffeine in competition, here’s a recent study that compared the benefit of caffeine on cycling performance in men versus women. (Both benefitted, but men slightly more than women.)
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.