There is nothing more ingrained in endurance sports than coffee. Probably more so in cycling than in Triathlon, but the coffee culture is pretty strong in most endurance sports. I think almost every group ride in the country either starts or ends at a coffee shop. There have been coffee sponsored cycling teams, USA Cycling coffee, and Starbucks sponsors numerous running, triathlon, and cycling events around the country due to the popularity of coffee with endurance athletes. I personally have a love-hate relationship with coffee. I pretty much love it all the time and hate it when its gone.
Doing a search in any sports journal for caffeine and performance will give you a ton of a results. While there are some that find conflicting results the majority have found that caffeine can lower perceived exertions and increase performance for events lasting longer than 30 minutes. It is theorized that the increase in performance is from caffeine’s ability to spare glycogen (stored muscle fuel) and an increased rate of fat mobilization. Even without the physiological affects of caffeine, the psychological effect is significant. Having a lower perceived exertion can be the difference between a bad workout and a good workout. Several studies have shown a benefit from only 1 -1.5mg of caffeine per kg of body weight so mega doses aren’t needed. That also supports the practice of drinking a flat or semi flat Coke late in a race for a quick energy burst. My personal recommendation is to wait until the last 30minutes of a workout or race before going to the Coke to limit the affects of the simple sugars on carbohydrate metabolism. I also recommend finding the “Mexican Coke” in the glass bottles since those use cane sugar and not high fructose corn syrup. Outside of athletic performance, caffeine has also been linked to lowering a persons risk of type 2 diabetes, is a great source of anti-oxidants, and may prevent Alzheimer disease among other health benefits.
As much as I love my wonder drink it does come with some warnings. Those athletes with irregular heart beats, chronic high blood pressure, or have adverse psychological warnings are best to avoid it. It may be beneficial for athletes to also err on the side of moderation so come race day they don’t have to take the 7-11 coffee big gulp to get that caffeine rush.
The downside to coffee consumption is disrupting sleep. Coffee will stay in your system for up to 12 hours so it is important to take that into account when you reach for that 3pm coffee. As athletes we do 90%+ of our recovery in our sleep. Even an hour less sleep a day can have a drastic affect on our recovery rates and hence our performance. More on sleep here and sleep and fat loss here. I find I sleep a lot better if cut off the java around noon. Of course before then its lots of dark, hot, and bitter…