The Power of the (French) Press

By: Molly Hurford Nov 15

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This morning, as I stood in the kitchen where, just a day before, our French Press had met its untimely end as it shattered on the floor after an unfortunate counter incident, I realized that I had a problem. For three minutes, I had been standing holding a ceramic apparatus above a soup-bowl-sized mug, painstakingly pouring water in, drip by drip, and watching the muddy combination of the boiling liquid and coffee grounds slowly seep into the cup.

Recently, I’ve developed a coffee habit. I don’t say this in a shameful way, mainly because I’ve been using said habit to kick my old bad habit of drinking entirely too much soda. While coffee may not be the healthiest option, it’s certainly better than ingesting a product that, for cyclists, is more commonly used to erode grime off of drivechains than it is ingested. We’re an odd bunch, though, because as any good cyclist knows, coffee is a staple. Like buying brown rice or quinoa at the grocery store, coffee is on the shopping list of every pro I know (with the exception of Craig Richey, for some reason.)

Now, I’m not a coffee connoisseur, though my recent move to Providence, Rhode Island, has certainly fast-tracked my education as I’m shepherded around to the best of the coffeehouses in the area. I am slowly learning the difference between good and bad coffee, and the different elements that go into brewing it. While I wasn’t crazy about the taste when I was younger, it’s growing on me. I like to think my palate is a bit more refined these days, especially now that I can tell the difference between Chock Full O Nuts and the “winter blend” from Whole Foods. Or at least, I can tell which is better.

But the main thing I care about, I have to admit, is the caffeine. As it turns out, my previous soda habit developed what can only be classified as an addiction to the stuff. Sure, I miss soda, but more importantly, without it, I legitimately go through withdrawal, complete with headaches. Coffee fixes this.

So that leads me, in a slightly roundabout way, to the point of today’s article: caffeine, and the athlete. There have been quite a few studies done in the past few years on this very topic, and the results have been pretty interesting. After all, it’s one of the few substances that is still legal for use in cycling and has been proven to enhance performance.

Studies on caffeine first started cropping up in the seventies, and to be honest, most research has just elaborated on the original findings or underscored them. Only one study that I managed to hunt down suggested that caffeine might be more psychologically effective rather than physiologically, but even that study admitted it’s usefulness. I specifically looked for studies focused on caffeine and cycling, since, heck, that basically sums me up. (Maybe it’s time for a new title for this column?)

Anyway, back in 1979, Medicine & Science in Sports published a study that sets the stage for the others that I looked at, entitled, “Influence of caffeine and carbohydrate feedings on endurance performance.” The study showed that ingesting caffeine and carbohydrates during cycling increased power output without increasing perceived exertion, meaning cyclists were working harder but didn’t feel like it. In 1984, a similar study was published in Sports Medicine that posited the same conclusion, adding that, “Caffeine appears to enhance lipid metabolism.” In the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2004, a study re-asserted that, “high-intensity cycling performance can be increased following moderate caffeine ingestion and that this improvement may be related to a reduction in RPE [perceived exertion] and an elevation in blood lactate concentration.” So we get it: caffeine leads to an increase in power for cyclists.

But it wasn’t all about power, as a 1991 study conducted by the American Physiological Society would show: caffeine also improved endurance in cyclists. As an added bonus, in addition to enhancing performance in terms of power and endurance, caffeine has also been shown to decrease muscle pain during exercise. A 2006 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at college-aged females (one of the few studies focusing on women!) and found that, “caffeine ingestion has a large effect on reducing leg muscle pain during exercise among females.” The study also noted that the dosage of caffeine didn’t seem to change the results, so you don’t need to overload on caffeine to see results. A study in The International Journal of Sports Medicine (“The Effect of Different Dosages of Caffeine on Endurance Performance Time”) backs this claim up by stating: “The stimulating effect of caffeine was already apparent at the lowest dose of caffeine given: 5 mg/kg.”) [For a 150 lb person, that’s about 2-2.5 cups of coffee.]

If you’re one of the few cyclists who doesn’t regularly indulge in an espresso or cup of joe to start the day, caffeine might be even more effective for you! The International Journal of Sports Medicine, in the study “Caffeine Ingestion Prior to Incremental Cycling to Exhaustion in Recreational Cyclists,” saw that “Subjects in the caffeine trial worked significantly longer and performed more work than they did in either the control or placebo trials.” They then concluded that, “a dose of caffeine is an ergogenic aid during incremental exercise when it is taken 3-4 hours prior to the exercise in fasting subjects who have diets low in caffeine.”

And of course, there’s the psychological component. We know that caffeine should perk us up, so whether it’s a soda, cup of coffee, or even a caffeine pill, we know what the effect should be, so do we imagine it? A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that our mental reaction may partially explain our physical response. The study split cyclists into four groups: placebo who were told they were ingesting caffeine; caffeine who were told they were ingesting a placebo; caffeine who were told they were taking caffeine, and the control group, who got nothing and knew it. The results weren’t surprising. The control group did the worst as far as power output went, and the other results demonstrated, “A substantial interaction between belief and pharmacology.” Even the group who had a placebo that they believed to be caffeine performed well, but not as well as the group that unknowingly ingested caffeine.

That all being said, if anyone has a French Press to loan me, I will happily take you up on that. Until then, see you at the coffee shops!

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
March 2006 – Volume 38 – Issue 3 – pp 598-604
Effect of Caffeine on Leg Muscle Pain during Cycling Exercise among Females

Caffeine Ingestion Prior to Incremental Cycling to Exhaustion in Recreational Cyclists. S. Flinn, J. Gregory, L. R. Mc Naughton, S. Tristram, P. Davies
Centre for Physical Education, Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, P. O. Box 1214, Launceston, Tasmania 7250 (Australia)
Physiology and Biochemistry Int J Sports Med 1995; 16(4): 225-230
DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-972996

The Effect of Different Dosages of Caffeine on Endurance Performance Time.
W. J. Pasman1, M. A. van Baak1, A. E. Jeukendrup1, A. de Haan2
1 Department of Human Biology, University of Limburg, Maastricht, The Netherlands
2 Department of Muscle and Exercise Physiology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
December 2006 – Volume 38 – Issue 12 – pp 2159-2164

Placebo Effects of Caffeine on Cycling Performance

Effects of Caffeine Ingestion on Utilization of Muscle Glycogen and Lipid During Leg Ergometer Cycling. D. Essig, D. L. Costill, P. J. Van Handel
Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana 47306

Caffeine, Cycling Performance, and Exogenous CHO Oxidation: A Dose-Response Study. DESBROW, BEN1,2; BARRETT, CLARE M.1; MINAHAN, CLARE L.3; GRANT, GARY D.4; LEVERITT, MICHAEL D.1,2

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
January 2008 – Volume 40 – Issue 1 – pp 158-165

Dose-dependent effect of caffeine on reducing leg muscle pain during cycling exercise is unrelated to systolic blood pressure.
Patrick J. O’Connor – COR1 , , Robert W. Motl, Steven P. Broglio, Matthew R. ElyM

Medicine & Science in Sports:
Influence of caffeine and carbohydrate feedings on endurance performance:

Caffeine lowers perceptual response and increases power output during high-intensity cycling
Authors: Mike Doherty1; Paul Smith1; Michael Hughes2; Richard Davison3
Source: Journal of Sports Sciences, Volume 22, Number 7, July 2004 , pp. 637-643(7) Publisher: Taylor and Francis Ltd



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