Toolbox: Caffeine for Recovery?
Caffeine and cycling goes together like few other things in life, and the coffee stop at the end of the ride is often the whole reason for many of us to clip into the pedals to begin with. Can we further justify the caffeine as a recovery tool after a hard ride?
Caffeine and Cycling
Whether it is the actual use of caffeine as an ergogenic aid during cycling, or the social concept of the “coffee ride,” coffee culture is inextricably linked with cycling. It is even a viable retirement plan for ex-pros like fellow Canadian Christian Meier and his wife Amber, with their setting up a café and coffee roasting business in Spain.
Prior to or during cycling, caffeine can have several potential benefits. There is the potential for it helping with fat metabolism, and of course there is the increased stimulus of the sympathetic nervous system to help prepare the body for exercise. Caffeine also leads to increased alertness and arousal, which can sustain endurance by reducing the perception of fatigue. Of course, this latter use of caffeine has spawned the massive energy drink industry.
While caffeine does aid exercise, moderation is the key, and too much of something is rarely good. I remember taking part in a study at my military research lab during my Ph.D. featuring very high doses of caffeine designed for special forces use. While my high-intensity performance certainly improved, I also recall my scalp itching like it was crawling with fire ants all day, and that night sloshing a glass of orange juice all over from not being able to hold my hand steady.
Caffeine in high doses has been banned in decades past (ciao Gianni Bugno!). Currently, it is not banned, but remains on the monitored list.
Caffeine for Recovery?
While caffeine as an ergogenic aid DURING exercise has been heavily studied, its potential as a recovery aid has received minimal research. One recent study explored the role of caffeine in reducing post-exercise muscle pain. Here was the setup:
• 25 men (53 y) and 5 women (46 y) participating in the 2015 Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred in Texas. The ride was 164 km in August, so obviously heat was a major factor in the ride. All had completed at least one previous century ride.
• Average daily caffeine intake was 230 mg. The study said that participants volunteered to abstain from their normal caffeine intake for the study, but provided minimal details on what this mean (e.g., duration of abstinence prior to study). The only information provided was that any ingesting >100 mg caffeine outside of the provided supplements were removed (3 in the control group were removed).
• 10/2 males/females were in the caffeine group, with 15/3 in the placebo.
• Participants received no guidance about hydration, nutrition, or pacing during the Hotter ‘n Hell. They ingested 44 mg of caffeine on average during the ride, and completed the ride in 28°C wet bulb temperature in 5.73 hours.
• 3 mg/kg (252 mg average) of caffeine were provided to the test group at mornings 1-4, and afternoons 1-3, following the ride.
• Lower Extremity Functionality (LEF) was tested with a 20-question instrument, with each question ranked from 0 (inability to perform) to 4 (no difficulty) for a total score range of 0-80.
• Ratings of Perceived Muscle Soreness (RPMS) for both the overall body and the resting state of the legs was rated on a scale of 1 (absence of soreness) to 6 (severe pain that limited movement).
Post-Ride Coffee Stop
Muscle “soreness” and the magnitude of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is difficult to quantify. There are possible tests such as measuring limb girth as a measure of inflammation, or actual blood tests to measure markers such as creatine kinase. It is difficult to do with a large number of subjects, but an ideal marker would be actual lab-based muscle function testing.
While this study is directly relevant to cycling, it must also be acknowledged that cycling is not an impact-bearing sport, and also does not feature eccentric muscle contractions. Therefore, most muscle damage/recovery studies typically use downhill running, plyometrics, or eccentric muscle training to induce high levels of muscle damage. This can be seen in the generally high LEF scores even in the control group (>60 out of max 80 throughout all 4 days) and the low RPMS (~2 out of max 6 on day 1).
Given their constraints, what did the data show about whether caffeine benefited recovery from muscle damage?
• LEF had minimal change between caffeine and placebo, except for caffeine being higher day 1 in the afternoon. No firm numbers were provided, but eyeballing the graphs it appears that LEF gradually improved in both groups over the four days.
• Afternoon RPMS was reported as lower with caffeine than with placebo, with no difference in the morning reports.
I found this a potentially interesting study that is hampered by the lack of some methodological controls and its use of only perceptual test measures. It does suggest that moderate caffeine ingestion may have a slight analgesic effect on muscle soreness after hard cycling efforts. But I would say that these truly are just transient analgesic effects, and that caffeine does not actually get at the root cause of muscle soreness, namely the micro-muscular damage from unaccustomed exercise.
There is also a potential risk that, by artificially masking the muscular damage, you can resume training too quickly, magnifying the risk of overtraining by doing further muscular damage before you have adequately recovered.
So for now, enjoy your java post-ride but, apart from tasting great and making you feel good, do not assume that it actually helps your recovery from training or racing.
Have fun and ride fast!
Caldwell, AR, Tucker, MA, Butts, CL, McDermott, BP, Vingren, JL, Kunces, LJ, Lee, EC, Munoz, CX, Williamson, KH, Armstrong, LE, and Ganio, MS. Effect of caffeine on perceived soreness and functionality following an endurance cycling event. J Strength Cond Res 31(3): 638–643, 2017.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 90 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he is currently co-editing a followup book “Cycling Science” with Dr. Mikel Zabala from the Movistar Pro Cycling Team. Stephen can be reached for comments at [email protected] .