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Caffeine and the road cyclist

If you’ve watched a road cycling race, triathlon or marathon in the last five years, you may have noticed a curious thing. After drinking a sports drink for most of the race, competitors suddenly switch to their ‘secret weapon’—Coca-Cola! Feed zones and aid stations are awash in cans and bottles bearing the iconic red-and-white logo. The Coca-Cola company’s marketing prowess is well known, but there is no advertising campaign telling athletes that ‘things go better with Coke in the last third of an endurance event’.

Nor does Coca-Cola mount sponsorship drives to put its products on bikes or in the hands of runners. Can experienced athletes really be turning their backs on sports drinks, supported by millions of dollars worth of research and hundreds of scientific publications, in favour of a beverage that’s mostly sugar, caffeine and flavouring? Caffeine

At marathons in the 1980s, it was common to see runners pouring cups of strong black coffee from thermoses as they finished their warm-ups and congregated at the race start. Cyclists are still connoisseurs of the pre-race coffee, and the coaches of many pro teams travel with coffee machines that would be at home in any Italian cafe.

Caffeine has been known as a stimulant and used in sport for its ergogenic properties for at least a century. But relatively new scientific evidence both supports the competition caffeine hit and explains the recent sudden increase in its popularity. In the late 1970s, papers began to appear in the peer-reviewed literature ascribing metabolic and performance advantages to the consumption of caffeine in the hour before to endurance exercise.

Lastly comment

The first of these came from the Human Performance Laboratories of Ball State University in Indiana, under the leadership of Professor Dave Costill. Costill’s reputation in running circles as a ‘sports science guru’ ensured that this information quickly spread, via articles in popular running magazines and word of mouth, to large groups of runners of varying abilities

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