Coffee is an integral part of the cycling and endurance sports culture. On Sunday mornings, many cyclists stop during their long outing to enjoy a coffee and pastry. It’s a moment to catch your breath, stop and rest before the next hard kilometres.
Though its taste may be a favourite for cyclists and other athletes, its popularity may also be due to its ergogenic properties (which increases performance). For centuries, caffeine has been recognized for its effects on alertness and feeling of fatigue. It’s not for nothing that 90% of adults in the world drink coffee regularly. In addition to being more alert, caffeine also reduces the feeling of pain and fatigue during intense exercise.
Therefore, it may be advantageous to consume caffeine before or during competitions to improve performance. On the other hand, if you drink coffee every day, and even several times a day, it is possible that the ergogenic effect of caffeine is reduced since your metabolism is too used to consuming coffee. In other words, the effect you’re feeling now is undoubtedly a lot less than the first time you had coffee. It’s even possible that you have to drink more coffee to feel the same effect.
That’s why many athletes do a caffeine detox the week before a race to have a more significant caffeine effect. For example, Des Linden, an elite marathoner does this before her competitions. For a coffee lover like Linden, (she co-founded the coffee company Linden & True) it’s a big sacrifice.
Is it really worth it to miss coffee for a week?
A recent study published in December 2018 showed a decrease in the effect of caffeine after a certain period of time. Participants participated in two different protocols – for 20 days they took a caffeine tablet, followed by 20 days of a placebo. The two blocks of 20 days were separated by a period of seven days. Participants and researchers were not aware of whether they were taking a placebo or the actual tablet. The researchers demonstrated a 5% increase in VO2 max when caffeine was consumed on day one.
The researchers also showed that for people who consumed the caffeine tablet, the beneficial effect on performance began to decrease after a few days. This performance was still better compared to the placebo, but lower than the first day of the experiment.
Related: Debunking the habitual coffee myth
So, it seems like it’s worth it to abstain from caffeine the week before a competition to have a bigger boost on race day. However, if this “detox” affects your physical preparation before the race – headaches, lack of “energy,” mood swings, etc. – this “detox” may not be worth it.