Cyclists go faster with moderate caffeine dose, meta-analysis shows

A meta-analysis of studies totaling more than 220 subjects found that a moderate dose of caffeine cut total time in a cycling time trial by as much as 2%, which could be a winning difference.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

June 6, 2024

4 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Meta-analysis looked at effects of low to moderate caffeine doses. 
  • Bigger caffeine doses made cyclists go faster, while low doses had no effect. 
  • Genetic differences mean optimal caffeine consumption must be tailored to individual athletes.

Can caffeine make you faster? A new meta-analysis suggests, at least within the realm of a cycling time trial, the answer is yes. 

The new research was published yesterday in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. It was the work of a group of researchers associated with universities and institutes in China and Australia. 

There is renewed interest in ergogenic sports aids in the runup to the Paris Olympic games. Caffeine is of interest as it has long been accepted as a sports nutrition and focus-enhancement ingredient that poses no doping concerns. 

Caffeine controversies 

Caffeine ingestion has long been considered safe, even at somewhat higher doses. A concern was raised back in 2012 when a teenager died after drinking two large Monster Energy beverages in relatively quick succession. The fact that the young woman was found during an autopsy to have suffered from an undiagnosed underlying medical condition did not forestall a U.S. Congressional hearing on the labeling and marketing of caffeinated energy drinks to underage consumers. The upshot of the affair was an IOM report in 2014 on the issue, which did not spark FDA action on new caffeine labeling regulations.  

And again in 2016, concerns were raised when pure powdered caffeine and concentrated liquid caffeine products began to become widely available on the internet. FDA banned the sale of those products, citing concerns that the powdered product in particular was so potent that a single teaspoon could constitute a lethal dose. 

Cycling time trials are of special interest among events in which a caffeine-fueled performance boost can be expected. The real-world event, so to speak, is very similar to the laboratory conditions of a cycling ergometer test. Cyclists traverse the course individually and must manage their energy expenditure and power output in the absence of the external motivation of rivals to chase. 

Studies winnowed down to a pertinent few 

The researchers combed through more than 1,700 studies and, after applying their exclusion criteria, they were left with 15 studies to include in their analysis. Exclusion criteria included studies conducted under extreme conditions (high heat or high altitude), studies that used caffeine gum instead of capsules or tablets as the delivery form because of different uptake profiles, studies that provided energy drinks during the tests, etc. 

The researchers were also looking specifically for studies that measured overall time in the time trial tests and mean power output as their endpoints.  

While all the studies were of small size (several studies included more than one trial), the overall number of subjects included in the meta-analysis came to more than 220. 

The included studies used a range of dosages, from 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight up to a high of 6 mg/kg. For a 72 kg (158 pound) racing cyclist, those caffeine doses would equate to a range of 72 mg up to 432 mg. 

Small effect sizes add up to big results 

The authors said the expected effect sizes were quite small but were nevertheless significant. Cutting the time needed to complete a given time trial circuit by as little as 2% could be the difference between finishing in the top 10 or getting a spot on the podium, they noted. The men’s and women’s time trial course in Paris is 32.4 km, a distance the men’s winner could be expected to cover in about 37 minutes. 

The authors concluded that a moderate dose of caffeine, in the 4-6 mg/kg range (288-432 mg), was optimal. That provided a significant performance boost over the lower range, which showed little effect. 

“This systematic review and meta-analysis showed that a moderate dosage (4–6 mg/kg) of caffeine, identified as the optimal dose range, significantly improves the time trial performance of cyclists. Contrastingly, a low dose (1–3 mg/kg) does not yield the same improvement. These findings could provide a basis for cyclists and coaches to devise more effective caffeine supplementation strategies,” they noted. 

Individual differences 

A big caveat, however, is that caffeine absorption is different among different people due to genetic factors. A trainer would need to gather data on an individual cyclist before devising an optimal supplementation strategy, the authors counseled. 

“When tailoring personalized supplement regimens, it is essential to consider individual athlete differences (i.e. gender, dietary habits, and genetic types) to maximize caffeine’s ergogenic effects,” they concluded. 

 

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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