Endurance running comes with it’s own unique challenges and stresses on our bodies. We are continually looking for food and drinks that will help us to run further without fatigue, recover faster, and prepare our bodies for that big event. One drink that might help you with all three is green tea. There have been numerous studies on the health benefits of green tea. It is considered a ‘healthy’ option and an alternative to other sugary or highly caffeinated drinks such as coffee. It has been associated with enhanced weight loss, boosting immunity and increasing bone density. So, as endurance runners who are concerned with our fitness and health, it’s a good daily choice. But maybe green tea should also be your race day choice. Did you know that green tea has the potential to help you run for longer? No, maybe it's time to go to the online tea shop and stock up. Read on!
A Japanese study published in the American Journal of Physiology; Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology has shown green tea has potential to improve your endurance running. They compared endurance in mice who had been given a green tea extract for 8 weeks, with those who had none. They found that mice given the green tea extract ran for a massive 30% longer than those without the green tea. The mice who had the green tea also had a higher level of glycogen in their muscles directly after exercise, more fatty acids in their blood and overall a lower respiratory rate during exercise. All these things show that their bodies were releasing more fuel for the muscles and sending less to be stored as fat. In August 2011, a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found the same effect in humans during a cycling trial. The same effect has been shown for swimming, just in case there are any triathletes reading this!
So how does this work? They have suggested that the catechins, a natural substance found in green tea, are responsible for enhancing endurance. During exercise, your body is using energy and the balance of energy gained from carbohydrates and from fats is important in increasing endurance levels. The ability to utilization fat storage for endurance running has long been recognized as key to running for longer. The catechins present in green tea help us to utilise fatty acid as a source of energy during exercise, and therefore help us to release the energy to run for longer. The researchers in Japan recommend the long term intake of green tea and habitual exercise to promote endurance capacity. In this experiment, the green tea was decaffeinated, so imagine the effect it can have with a caffeine boost too!
When participating in an endurance event, we might want a good dose of caffeine to get us up and running. Caffeine is noted for increasing alertness, and is a proven performance enhancer that makes running feel much easier. Highly caffeinated drinks are a tried and tested good race day choice for us. Sometimes, with drinks like coffee and cola however, this caffeine shot comes at a price and the acidity of the coffee or fizziness of a drink can cause gastric issues, ranging from acid reflux (heartburn) through to stomach upset; neither of which are particularly welcome on a run. Tea, also a source of caffeine, might therefore be considered a good alternative pre-race drink. Tea only has about half the caffeine content of coffee. A mug of coffee, brewed from grounds will typically have around at least 60mg of caffeine whereas green tea will have 20mg and black tea around 45mg (depending on what brands you drink and how it’s prepared, this will vary). But having less acid, and being plant based, tea is much lighter and easier to drink than coffee, and comes with it’s own array of health boosting benefits.
In terms of your recovery, tea has been found to have a multitude of preventative and restorative health benefits. Evidence suggests that athletes require a higher level of antioxidants in their diets to combat the oxidative damage done by exercise, when the body is functioning at a faster rate than it can readily repair it’s self. Tea is a powerful source of antioxidants, which helps to break down these by-products of exercise, such as lactic acid. The amount of antioxidants in one cup of green tea is roughly equivalent to half a bowl of fruit or vegetables. High level exercise produces a lot of lactic acid in our systems, and it’s been found that mice who exercised after being given green tea had significantly less lactic acid in their blood than those without the green tea. The heightened immunity to ill health that is associated with green tea consumption also means you will be less vulnerable to throat and chest problems (upper respiratory tract infections) that sometimes plague people who exercise at a high level.
Green tea consumption before exercise is also associated with better post-exercise outcomes. These include fewer symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and less post-exercise inflammation, and lower effects of oxidative stress (the by product of using lots of oxygen more quickly than the body can cope with). The flavonoids in tea, when consumed for days or weeks prior to heavy exercise can help to combat the effects of oxidative stress on the body. In 2008, a study published in the journal ‘Nutrition’ found that green tea reduced the oxidative stress and inflammation in the bodies of male weight trainers. An American study has found that Theaflavin rich black tea also improves recovery in this way for college-aged males completing interval training. In addition, a study on mice found that long term green tea use decreased the post-exercise inflammation in muscles and oxidative stress following down hill running. This means less painful muscle soreness post race, and a quicker recovery for tea drinkers.
Another consideration is our dental health. Eating sugary snacks and sports drinks on long events, puts us at risk for getting cavities (dental caries) in our teeth. Especially those multi day events where cleaning our teeth is not perhaps as thorough as it might be at home with a regular sized tooth brush and washbasin! Research has shown that drinking green tea in breaks and with meals is associated with reduced incidence of periodontal disease. It is thought that the catechins in green tea inhibit the growth of oral bacteria. Tea leaves are also rich in fluoride, which enhances dental health and prevents cavities. In a school where green tea was given to children after lunch, the incidence of dental caries decreased.
So green tea can help you in preparation for an event by stocking your body with the nutrients needed to minimise muscle damage, it can help you during the event by prolonging your performance, and post race it is a good choice for both your dental health and as a powerful antioxidant. It's a great choice for taking good care of your body, and boosting your performance. Choosing the green tea you drink is very important. To get the goodness you need, you’ll have to find a green tea high in catechins, which is hard to guarantee from a tea bag. The catechins will be highest in the new freshly picked tea leaves. To ensure that you get this important natural helping hand for your endurance events, it is best to select a loose leaf green tea, that is picked in early spring, such as the popular Dragon Well tea. The natural substances found in green tea are delicate and to get the best from the tea, you should infuse around 3-5g of loose leaf green tea in water around 80C (not boiling) for about 1-2 minutes. This will also get the best flavour – which is important, as if you’re drinking it every day, you want something tasty! You can re-use the same leaves about 3 times. It’s a good way to keep up your hydration too. So what are you waiting for? Run to the tea shop, stock up, and get the kettle on!