Caffeine is that addictive substance that gets so many of us first thing in the morning. But what does it actually do and can it impact your athletic performance and ability to ride? Also are there downsides to it? Belinda Reynolds explains.
We all know that a morning coffee helps us to feel alert, energised and ready to face the day, and that most of its benefits come from the caffeine content. What you may not know is just how complex caffeine’s multiple mechanisms of action on the body are, and how it may help to boost your performance.
Caffeine is one of the most well-researched supplements for sports performance and weight loss. It is shown to improve multiple performance parameters, from increases in the force of muscle contractions, to enhanced endurance performance. It is also beneficial in high-intensity exercise, supporting better energy production in cells, boosting metabolism, enhancing feelings of mental alertness and even mood.
So how does it work? Caffeine concentrations in the blood will increase 15-30mins after ingestion, with levels peaking at around the 1 hour mark (however it can vary between 15 and 120 mins depending on the person and dose).
Once in the system caffeine binds to special receptors in the brain, blocking the action of one our “sleepy” neurochemicals, adenosine. This, together with its stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, sees caffeine make us feel alert and primed for action. Our body cells’ efficiency at producing and restoring energy enhances, and more fat is released from body stores, ready to be used for aerobic work.
Caffeine also seems to reduce perceived exertion or “psychological perception of effort” during exercise. This means that when using the right dose of caffeine, you don’t feel as though you’re working as hard as you are, and you may be able to push yourself further.
If you have specific body composition goals, and are looking to reduce body fat, caffeine can be useful here also. It not only makes fat more available for use as energy, but also stimulates thermogenesis and fat oxidation (i.e. fat burning).
Combining caffeine with additional nutrients and carbohydrates can also be beneficial. For example d-ribose is shown to assist in restoring cellular ATP levels faster, while CoQ10 or Ubiquinol is a nutrient essential for the functioning of mitochondria, the little powerhouses of our cells. Taking these together with caffeine can further enhance your cellular energy production, reducing feelings of fatigue.
OK, so we know that caffeine has great benefits, but is there a downside?
Excessive, long-term caffeine use may not be ideal for everyone, and therefore it is important to listen to your body. Based on genetic differences some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others and would benefit from avoiding high doses (e.g. above 300mg). So if you know that a strong espresso leaves you jittery for hours, or sends you running to the bathroom, it may be wise to go easy, possibly starting at around 50mg and gauging your response. Other supplements containing nitrates (e.g. beetroot and red spinach), creatine or beta-alanine can also be incorporated to give you an extra performance boost in the absence of high-dose caffeine.