Quick, what’s the most popular drink in the world behind water?
Coffee? Juice? Milk? Soda? Nope—it’s tea.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, and its popularity is soaring in America. In 1990, Americans bought a little under $2 billion dollars worth of tea. In 2013, that number swelled to over $10 billion. Although tea has become more popular, it still carries a bit of a stereotype. For many young people, the word tea conjures up images of quiet old ladies and well-mannered Englishmen. It doesn’t bring to mind, say, elite athletes.
But why? You’ve probably heard someone say tea’s good for you. But beyond that general statement, you might not know that tea has a number of performance-enhancing benefits that make it especially beneficial to athletes. Yes, sipping tea can make you play better. We talked to Brandon McGill, sports performance director at STACK Velocity Sports Performance, and Ryan Andrews, a coach at Precision Nutrition, to learn more about this underappreciated beverage.
Dehydration impedes performance and causes issues like cramping and fatigue. Simply put, if you aren’t hydrated, you’ll likely end up on the bench (and ironically become the team’s water boy). However, staying hydrated isn’t always easy. Constantly drinking water can be a challenge for young athletes, as they might pine for a more flavorful, fun-to-drink option. Lucky for you, tea is a fantastic way to stay hydrated. A 2011 study found that tea had similar hydrating properties as water.
McGill says, “The biggest thing is that tea keeps you hydrated. There’s been a lot of good research that shows tea is comparable to water in terms of keeping you hydrated when drunk in the same quantities. A lot of young athletes might not like drinking straight water. It might not have enough flavor or whatever it may be. It just doesn’t do it for them. So they’re seeking other beverages. A 2-percent drop in hydration can affect performance. And young athletes are going from training to school to practice, so they’re busy. It can be hard for them to stay hydrated. But tea keeps you hydrated, it has good flavor and it doesn’t have a ton of sugar like soda or juice.”
Studies have found drinks like soda hydrate similarly well, but one must consider what’s in these alternatives—usually a ton of caffeine, sugar and additives. McGill continues, “High amounts of caffeine and sugar can both result in crashes, the last thing an athlete wants. Additionally, high amounts of caffeine and sugar are addicting. Tea’s lower in sugar and caffeine than most alternatives, which allows it to possess the positives of those substances while avoiding their potential pitfalls. Tea has caffeine in it, but not nearly as much as coffee. It can provide a little stimulation for an athlete, which is great when you’ve got a 6 a.m. football practice and then a full day of school. You can drink some green tea to rehydrate after practice, and it will also help raise your level of awareness and help you get through those long days. This is smarter than relying on drinks like soda or energy drinks that usually have way more sugar and caffeine than you need.”
Andrews agrees that the moderate amount of caffeine found in tea can be useful for athletes. He says, “Caffeine, studied in its isolated form, has been found to be one of the most tried and true performance enhancing substances of all time. It can basically just help you get that extra push you need during an athletic performance.”
Tea keeps you hydrated, gives you a little kick to help you get through your day and is low in calories and sugar. But perhaps the most impressive performance-enhancing benefit of tea it increases endurance capacity.
A 2004 study found that green tea extract improved endurance capacity in mice: “GTE [green tea extract] markedly improved endurance capacity and stimulated lipid use.” And a 2006 study concluded that “the endurance-improving effects of GTE were mediated, at least partly, by increased metabolic capacity and utilization of fatty acid as a source of energy.” All of that jargon basically means that green tea extract was found to improve endurance during aerobic activity, and that increased endurance was in part due to an increase in fat being burned for energy. While both of those studies were conducted using mice, human studies have shown similar results.
“It’s definitely possible that green tea can improve endurance capacity in athletes,” McGill says. “And it’s really good for helping with body composition. It helps your body prioritize fat storage over glycogen, which means it’s burning fat for energy.”
Those are the main performance-enhancing benefits of tea, but tea does other great things, too.
Catechins, a powerful antioxidant abundant in many teas (especially green tea), has been shown to aid in the prevention of cancer, osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases. Tea consumption has also been linked to increased dental health, lower cholesterol and enhanced immune system function. The overall health and disease prevention benefits linked to tea consumption are truly too voluminous to list. “If a young kid swapped out soda for an unsweetened green tea, who knows the amount of health benefits they’d find. It could help prevent cancer, improve cardiovascular health, prevent diabetes, help them manage their weight better, give them more energy and focus, and improve their oral health. Green tea’s one of those things where the downside of consuming it is pretty much non-existent,” Andrews says.
Affordability and Convenience
Tea is also an affordable and convenient beverage option. “It’s easy to get, it’s easy to make and it’s easy to create large quantities. It’s widely available,” McGill says. If you’re wondering which type of tea is right for you, there are plenty of great options. Green tea might be the best option, as it has the highest catechin content and has been studied the most. But black and white teas have many of the same health benefits.
There are, however, some things to watch out for. Herbal teas aren’t technically teas since they aren’t made from the Camellia sinensis plant. They’re actually made from a blend of seeds, herbs, flowers and fruits. Thus, herbal teas don’t confer the same benefits as traditional teas.
Making your own tea using loose tea leaves is a smart option, since it’s been found that green tea made this way has a higher antioxidant content than bottled tea. “The lazy man’s option is just buying some teabags at the store. But if you want a better experience with something that tastes better and potentially contains more of the beneficial compounds, I’d tell you to pick up some loose tea leaves,” Andrews says.
Head here for more info on how to brew healthy tea.
One of the biggest pluses to frequent tea drinking is the advantage it holds over alternative beverage options.“You have to pick your beverages carefully. Drinking soda, drinking juice, drinking certain sports drinks, they have their place. But it’s really about what you drink the most. If you frequently drink tea, you’re going to reap the benefits of drinking something with a ton of health benefits, zero calories, a little bit of caffeine and the ability to rehydrate you,” McGill says.