As the second biggest tea drinkers in the world (only the people of Turkey consume more cuppas), we collectively consume an average 2.19kg of tea every year and, according to one of our favourite brands, Lyons Tea, the average Irish person sips up to five cups a day and an annual 300 litres worth of tea. And, provided we don’t dunk a digestive in it and add extra calories in the form of sugar, our love of the black – or green – stuff might bring unexpected fitness benefits.
For experts say that tea is having its turn as the workout drink of the moment with studies showing that various varieties – from black and green to ginger, matcha and yerbe mate (both concentrated versions of green tea) – have the power to boost endurance, aid recovery and prevent aching muscles. It’s a favourite of athletes and footballers — Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez are among those seen sipping matcha tea prior to games — while gym-goers in the know have been sipping chilled and blended ‘performance’ teas from their water bottles since well before lockdown began.
While there’s enough caffeine in tea for a mild mental boost – per 100ml of brew, black tea has 31mg caffeine, green tea 31mg, matcha 30mg and yerbe mate 35.9mg, all dependent on how much tea is used and the length of the infusion time — but significantly less than coffee with an average 100mg (instant has as little as 24.1mg with espresso up at 173.5mg per 100ml). And since the caffeine in tea bonds with tannins as the leaves are infused, it is released more gradually, for a longer-lasting boost. Added to that is the array of antioxidants found in tea that are useful for exercise performance — including chlorogenic acid, which is known to slow the body’s release of glucose, helping to provide a longer-lasting energy and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), known to boost the body’s metabolism.
Among the most rigorously researched in terms of its ability to produce fitness gains is green tea. In May, a study published in theshowed that a green tea supplement enhanced blood flow to tired muscles after a hard weight training workout, potentially aiding their recovery.
Matthew Cole, an associate professor in sport and exercise nutrition at Birmingham City University, is among those studying the effects of all types of tea on fitness and says “there’s a growing body of evidence that green tea extract can help endurance performance”, partly down to the antioxidants it contains increasing the amount of fat being burned for energy during exercise.
A team of researchers from the Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Hertfordshire showed that green tea can maximise the effects of a workout, boosting fat metabolism and performance. For their trial, published in thesport and exercise scientist Dr Justin Roberts and his team used a decaffeinated version to test whether it was other compounds in the tea were having any effect. Fourteen active men were given either a placebo or decaffeinated green tea supplement providing the constituents found in around six to seven cups and asked to cycle for an hour three times a week. After a month, results showed that the men who had taken the green tea experienced around 25% greater fat burning and a significantly higher loss of body fat (1.63%) than those given the placebo. Performances on the bike also improved — in a final cycle test the green tea group bettered their starting times and distances by 10.9%.
Regular black breakfast tea has been shown to have similar hydrating properties to water and the antioxidants in all types of tea make it a potential recovery aid, possibly helping to reduce inflammation after a workout.
Both green and black tea have been shown to help fight the flab. In one study at the University of Ohio, mice fed a high-fat diet supplemented with green tea extract gained about 20% less weight than those not given the tea supplement. The tea-consuming mice also had lower levels of inflammation within fatty tissue and the intestine. You’d need to drink a lot for this benefit — green tea consumption in the experiment was equivalent to about 10 cups a day for the average person. Still, drinking it seems more effective than taking green tea supplements because the way the body metabolises the tea catechins seems to yield benefits.
It’s good for the gut too. In the 2016 Flemish Gut Flora Project, a group of Belgian researchers from the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology have identified tea as one of the factors important for gut health. “Tea is one of 60 dietary factors identified by researchers as influencing the diversity of our gut,” says Dr Megan Rossi, a research associate in gut health at Kings College London.
Keep your gut healthy and, in turn, it accelerates the loss of unwanted pounds. Researchers from University of California’s centre for human nutrition showed that drinking regular black tea decreased levels of intestinal bacteria associated with obesity and increased bacteria levels linked to lean body mass. “Our findings suggest that black tea, through a specific mechanism through the gut microbiome, may also contribute to good health and weight loss in humans,” wrote Susanne Henning, the study’s lead author.
If you prefer non-caffeinated teas, opt for turmeric and ginger. Both are associated with decreased muscle soreness from exercise due to their anti-inflammatory properties and with boosted immunity, although the science is less than conclusive. Cole says caffeine-free teas are probably more useful as a sleep aid. “We know that caffeine consumption at night can often lead to sleep disturbances and subsequently impact recovery from hard workouts,” he says. “So an alternative tea could help provide a potential solution.”
There’s a caveat to tea consumption: Cole says any fitness improvements with tea, as with coffee and performance drinks, “are likely to be quite small and highly individualised”. In other words, tea won’t transform you into a worldbeater.