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SDA Spills the Beans on Caffeine

April 01, 2014
SDA Spills the Beans on Caffeine

When it comes to getting the most out of our sporting pursuits, the importance of nutrition and hydration has escalated. More and more of us realise just how crucial an impact these have on our training and racing outcomes, not to mention general health and well-being. With that in mind, we welcome you to the first in a series of contributions this year from our friends at Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA), members of which include many New Zealand practicing professionals. Throughout the year they will share with us some of their knowledge and expertise, and we’re especially pleased that they’ve got things kick-started with coffee….

Who, Why, What, When and How of Sports Nutrition for Cycling Topic 1: Caffeine

Alison Garth; Accredited Sports Dietitian

It’s no surprise to see a row of bikes leaning up against a cafe wall, we all watch our favourite Tour de France cyclists downing a Coca ColaTM in the final phases of a stage, new caffeinated sports products continue to emerge on the market...can caffeine really be that good? In the first of a series of “Who, Why, What, When and How of Sports Nutrition for Cycling” articles for, we look at the facts of caffeine and its potential to help you go harder for longer.


Caffeine can have positive performance improvements across a range of cycling events from endurance rides to shorter time trial events in both males and females. Performance improvements of ~3% have been found in the lab, however, it is difficult to predict precisely what extent ‘real life’ training and racing can be improved as it is influenced by other factors such as tactics and weather conditions.

Importantly, a ‘more is better’ approach does not apply to caffeine. Typically, intakes of ~1-3mg caffeine per kilogram body weight (e.g. 70-210mg caffeine for a 70kg person – see table below for amounts of caffeine in products, as a guide) can improve performance. Intakes beyond this are unlikely to provide any additional benefit and increase the risk of negative side effects (e.g. shakiness, over-anxiety or increased heart-rate).

It is worthwhile noting that individual responses to caffeine are highly varied. Some cyclists may find that the negative side effects of caffeine outweigh the potential benefits. Others may find that caffeine offers them no benefit at all. Trialling different amounts can help to determine the optimal amount to help performance without adverse effects.


It was once thought that caffeine increased the use of fat as a fuel thereby “sparing” muscle glycogen. However, recent investigations have revealed that the most significant benefits of caffeine come from its effects on the brain. More specifically, caffeine is able to act as an adenosine receptor antagonist. By blocking the action of adenosine, caffeine impacts the central nervous system resulting in positive improvements to perception of exertion/fatigue (i.e. how hard the exercise session feels) resulting in a longer period of sustained work or pacing. In simple terms – you can improve your capacity to ‘go harder for longer’ before the negative effects of fatigue set in thereby improving your performance.


Coffee, cola drinks, caffeinated gels, caffeinated gum...the array of caffeine containing products available to cyclists is huge. But is any one source better than another? In general, no. Studies have found that the beneficial effects of caffeine can be seen using a variety of different products. Where it becomes tricky is that different products (and even different brands of the same product) have different amounts of caffeine. Knowing how much caffeine you are consuming is important as there can be a fine line between the amount which improves performance and the level at which negative side effects can occur. The list below provides some examples of how much caffeine is found in a range of products – be aware, formulations often change so it’s best to double check the nutrient information on the packing (if possible) to be sure.

display Caffiene


Performance improvements have been found regardless of whether the caffeine is taken one hour before a race, split in to doses over the race or taken only in the latter stages of a race when feelings of fatigue are most likely to really kick in. Unlike some supplements, the beneficial effects of caffeine are often noticed soon after consumption (within one hour) regardless of when levels peak in the blood. The duration of the event will obviously have an impact on timing of caffeine intake. In shorter events (e.g. criterium or time trial) where there is little opportunity to eat or drink during the event, having caffeine before the event is the most useful approach. On the other hand, during rides lasting several hours, having caffeine before the ride and/or topping up during the event, or saving the caffeine for the final stages, is more likely to be beneficial. Individuals should practice a variety of different strategies to determine the approach that works best for them.

Interestingly, new research suggests that caffeine may help to offset the negative effects on power output of training with low glycogen stores (the stored form of carbohydrate). While it does not improve performance to the same level as having good fuel (glycogen) stores, caffeine may be useful if you usually skip eating before an early morning (short; <90 minute) training session.

Regular coffee drinkers can relax - there is no need to stop having caffeine in the days leading up to an event if you want to benefit from caffeine during the event. Withdrawing from caffeine offers no additional benefit and will more likely lead to negative effects associated with caffeine withdrawal (e.g. headaches, irritability).

A word of warning though – caffeine can negatively impact sleep so if you are planning on racing or training late in the day it might be worth considering how this could impact your recovery that night.


So you’re convinced that there may be more to a quick coffee stop than the chance to rest your legs and escape the howling headwind. Here’s a quick summary of how you can use caffeine to help you go harder for longer:

  • Responses to caffeine are highly individualised – Trial ~1-3mg caffeine per kilogram body weight (e.g. 70-210mg caffeine for a 70kg person) as a starting point
  • Timing is flexible – Trial different combinations of before, during or in the final stages to determine the ideal approach for you
  • The source of caffeine doesn’t matter too much – But make sure you have a (rough) idea of how much you are consuming
  • Consider you sleep quality – Will caffeine negatively impact your recovery?
  • Practice! – If planning on using caffeine during racing always trial during training to work out the best strategy for you

For a tailored approach for your individual circumstances, seek the advice of an Accredited Sports Dietitian. To find one near you go to:

Recipe - Mocha Banana Smoothie

Try this smoothie before your next long ride; carb packed with a hit of caffeine

- 1 banana
- 1 shot espresso coffee
- 1 teaspoon hot chocolate powder
- 1 cup (250ml) milk


  1. Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.