5 Performance-Enhancing Benefits of Tea
The legacy of tea being used as a healthful beverage has its historical beginnings in 2737 BC in China. All tea comes from a single species of plant native to Southeast Asia, Camellia sinensis (meaning “Chinese Camellia”). As soon as tea leaves are picked from the plant, they begin to dehydrate and start to turn brown, or oxidize. The type of tea that tea leaf becomes is a function of how much oxidation it undergoes during processing. When it gets to the right level of oxidation for the tea type that’s being made, the oxidation process is stopped by drying the tea out completely, making the finished tea leaves chemically stable. White and green teas are dried almost immediately and are very little oxidized, making them closer in appearance and chemistry to a fresh tea leaf. Longer oxidation periods render the leaves darker and result in more traditional tea flavors and aromas like we find in oolong and black teas.
All fresh whole leaf teas have similar yields of total antioxidant content when steeped, which is about 240 mg per 2 grams of tea leaves. It’s the proportion of different antioxidants which vary between tea types. Green and white teas are richer in catechin polyphenols , of which the most dynamic player is EGCg (Epigallocatechin gallate). The body of research on green tea polyphenols is strongly focused on their support of the human immune system, by helping to block the biochemical mechanisms involved in the onset and progress of disease and cellular degeneration . Another important active ingredient in lightly oxidized teas for athletes is theanine. This alpha brainwave activity-enhancing amino acid makes the caffeine effect of tea a nearly steady, mild high with no big peaks or plunges . Darker teas, having gone through a longer oxidation process, have developed the more complex tea polyphenols, which are sought after for their antibacterial, detoxifying and vascular benefits .
Tea, as an alternative to water, can help formulate the habit of sipping throughout the day. Recent research dispels the common belief that tea dehydrates. Even though it contains caffeine, a 2016 study which compared 13 common beverages showed tea as super-hydrating (although not significantly), that is to say slightly more hydrating than the same quantity of water.  Tea can add interest thanks to its myriad of different types and flavors, as well as extra benefits of a constant flow of antioxidants, amino acids and vitamins to your water intake. For performance-level hydration, you can infuse green or white tea in coconut water, to add potassium and magnesium for electrolytes and natural easily-digested carbohydrates to your tea’s steady stream of natural caffeine and theanine for stimulation.
The ergogenic effects of tea  can provide an all-natural lift and one that’s more amenable to longer (> 1 hr) workouts than coffee. Like coffee, tea contains caffeine, although only one-fifth to half as much, depending on the tea type and how it’s brewed. The buzz you get from tea also comes from three additional molecules, theophylline, theobromine and L-theanine, which also cross the blood-brain barrier and act synergistically with caffeine. Theophylline helps ease breathing by relaxing smooth muscles in the airway, while activating the rate and force of cardiac contractions . Theobromine also stimulates the heart, but does so by stimulating blood flow around the body, leading to a net reduction in blood pressure. In combination with caffeine, L-theanine is especially clever in how it acts on some critical pathways in the brain. This molecule neutralizes the jittery and edgy effects of caffeine, without affecting the mind-focusing aspects .
Pre-race stimulation is important to athletes but the source and nature of the stimulation is also something that should be considered for each of us individually.
For mental stimulation, L-theanine promotes alpha brain wave production, simultaneously inducing a state of deep relaxation and mental alertness, much like the one you achieve when in a deep state of meditation . It also increases levels of dopamine, which is involved in the regulation of cognition and attention. The other thing L-theanine does is increase the levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid) in your brain. GABA works like the regulator that ratchets down the activity of the nerve cells responsible for your stress, fear and anxiety. Drinking tea has some of the same chemical and neurological effects as going into a deep meditative state.
Aside from being at adequate level of hydration to keep your digestion optimal, sometimes we need and extra boost on an early race or workout morning to get things moving. Pu’erh tea can help kickstart your system, making it an excellent functional choice for post-breakfast or pre-race. It’s beyond black tea on the oxidation scale and aged, in a secondary oxidization which keeps it biologically active, caused by organisms which continue to develop in the tea. With this continued microbial fermentation going on, pu-erh tea ages more dynamically than any other tea type. The resulting aged tea is mellow and has a sweet taste and heavy body. Pu’erh teas are now often classified by their year and region of production, much like vintage wines. Strictinin, the resulting major phenolic compound in pu’erh, has strong antibacterial and antiviral qualities which can help benefit digestion and prevent constipation . You can find straight pu’erh teas, and also breakfast teas which have pu-erh blended into them.
Green tea has been shown to improve endurance during aerobic activity, in part due to an increase in fat being burned for energy. EGCg has been shown to be effective in increasing calorie burn and the release of energy from fat stores and then speeding up the liver’s fat burning capacity. This results in improved exercise output in sporting activities as a result of burn fat in a more effective way . There are varying results from studies examining the effect of tea on endurance time to exhaustion, with some showing improvement and others showing no change. However, the performance-enhancing effects of caffeine in combination with L-theanine in tea can keep stimulation in check and limit the negative crash effects over longer periods of time that other caffeinated drinks can cause.
Much research has demonstrated that intense or prolonged exercise generates considerable amounts of reactive oxygen species (ROS) within the human body. ROS can produce oxidative stress, that is, damage to fats, proteins, nucleic acids, and, ultimately – muscle cells. Such oxidative stress has naturally been linked with fatigue and overtraining, and it has been suggested that the human body’s natural oxidant-defense system is not powerful enough to prevent the oxidative stress associated with rugged exercise. Thus, the argument goes, athletes need to accelerate their intakes of foods rich in antioxidants – like tea. Antioxidant effects come from the ability of tea polyphenols to limit the number of free radicals by binding to ROS. Additional anti-inflammatory effects may be a result of increased production of interleukin 10, an anti-inflammatory protein produced by immune system cells. Green and white teas have been shown to increase the expression of interleukin 10, thus assisting in the prevention of exercise-induced muscle damage .
At The Tea Spot, as well as in our broader community of active women, many of us have since adopted tea on as a part of our everyday training regimens. We’ve developed and continue to work on new products to be able to steep our tea fresh and take tea on-the-go, whatever our goals and adventures. Check out our collection of Best Teas for Athletes and Runners which highlights our favorite teas for energy, endurance, and recovery.