Can Tea Rival Sports Drinks in the Athletic World?

Tea’s staying power as a brand of sorts reaches back centuries, and its proven health benefits ensure a presence in the fitness realm. (Photo by: photosvit /

A 1990s survey of English soccer teams, reaching three divisions deep, revealed 82 percent of teams still served a cup of hot tea to players at half-time. Scotland and Liverpool F.C. legend Steve Nicol (1989 Football Writers' Association player of the Year) substantiated the study results and told World Tea News it was a matter of preference rather than being about sports science. “It was tradition – every club had a tea lady,” he said. “A cup at half-time was magic. The only time we were worried about the tea is when traveling overseas. There was a concern it was either brewed horribly or mixed with something that could sicken us.”

Tea and a World-Class Athlete’s Dietary Regimen

Admittedly, a cup of tea is not an ideal drink during a workout or game for some, but it has scientifically proven benefits, aiding recovery when used before or after strenuous physical activity. University and hospital studies link positive physical benefits to the regular intake of tea, though it can be a tenuous proposition to make the leap that tea is a performance enhancer. This is not to say tea does not have a place in a world-class athlete’s dietary regimen. In fact, it could be quite the opposite.

Medical research shows tea’s active compounds aid the most in a body’s recovery process after extended physical strain. That is as true for professional competitors as it is for someone going through, or taking up, a normal fitness routine. A 2018 study by the Department of Neuromechanics, at Brazil’s Federal University of Pampa showed green tea extracts preserved neuromuscular activation and reduced muscle damage markers in athletes under cumulative fatigue from constant physical exertion. In addition to the routine caffeine boost, they noted green tea provides benefits from the high level of antioxidants, which increase endurance and elevate metabolism. The green tea also helped to keep inflammation in check. These benefits, aside from the temporary caffeine high, came with a daily intake of three eight-ounce cups of tea a day, minimum.

Tea can be an even greater ally for people recovering from injury. The British Journal of Nutrition conducted a small study showing yerba mate had an extraordinary effect on recovery after training. The publication cited recovery statistics after strength routines increased by 8.6 percent up to 24 hours after training, crediting yerba mate’s high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as beneficial components in rehabilitating injured muscles.

The Link Between Tea and Athletic Performance

One company marketing a link between tea and performance is Tenzo (the title given to a chef in a zen monastery). Co-founder Steve O’Dell, a collegiate volleyball player at UCLA, was in search of a competitive edge and found it with tea. “Matcha tea offers a sublime sense of energy that other caffeinated products do not provide,” he explained. “With matcha, the energy lasts all day and does not give users a crash. Many people overlook what tea in general can do for them and should focus on the benefits which it can bring. Instead of jittery pre-workout energy drinks or coffee, balance organic resources into your diet to get results that will speak volumes to your productivity.”

Photo: Steve O’Dell, Tenzo

Tenzo has attracted a substantial clientele, as one of the fastest-growing consumer packaged goods companies in America, since its inception in 2016. O’Dell says his conversion away from sports drinks was not immediate. But in the end, it was complete. “When I traveled for volleyball, I always gravitated toward coffee,” he said. “Although it was not something I drank during the game, it tended to be something that I drank pre-game and post-game. It didn't go so well for my stomach or my performance. After a while I wanted to try out new drinks to push me, but, in all honesty, I wasn't a big fan of sports drinks or energy drinks. The sugary tastes always drew me away and in the middle of a game it tended to give me a headache.”

Like many athletes who convert to tea, there was a learning and taste curve. “I found matcha randomly, and at first I was not the biggest fan of the taste itself. The taste was overpowering and felt artificial, but the energy [a scoop of Tenzo matcha contains the same caffeine as one shot of espresso] it gave me was something that I had been craving.” O’Dell cautions athletes not to dive straight into the deep end of the pool when it comes to matcha – instead, ease into it. “The first time you try matcha for a game, start slow and see how it affects you and as time goes on you will find your balance.”

The most convincing aspect of matcha for O’Dell, in terms of athletic performance, is that everything is derived directly from nature. “Ditching the artificial flavoring and having organically picked leaves gives a holistic taste and a pure form of energy,” he said. “The energy doesn't cause a crash, headache or jitters, which is a great boost before a big game. Athletes should always be aware of what they put in their bodies, and that is especially true when considering what they drink pre-game. The last thing you want is a crash or a stomachache on the court or field. I suggest athletes who wish to try matcha for energy pre-game to look for fully organic blends of matcha tea.”

Yerba Maté Gets a Spike in Sports

A cursory look around the sporting landscape reveals that matcha and yerba maté are the prevailing teas enjoyed by athletes – both as an athletic aid or casual drink when socializing. Soccer remains the sport with the most worldwide presence and ardent users. Global idols like Argentine genius Lionel Messi and his Brazilian rival Neymar are often spotted with a yerba maté gourd in hand on their way to or from games. The polyphenol antioxidants in yerba maté are useful dietary supplements, helping in weight management, while the vitamin B and C content are important for maintaining a healthy immune system. Tennis star Novak Djokovic is noteworthy for drinking licorice root tea, asserting that he notices an improvement for his respiratory system.

Not only South Americans partake. French striker Antoine Griezmann (voted man of the match in the 2018 World Cup final game) is a virtual maté zealot, credited with a tremendous spike of yerba maté consumption in France after his team’s World Cup triumph. Introduced to maté by Uruguayan teammate Carlos Bueno, Griezmann praises yerba maté on all his social media platforms. He introduced several French national teammates – like Manchester United playmaker Paul Pogba – to the drink as well. In interviews, Griezmann attributes varied benefits to his consumption of yerba maté, saying his concentration, reflexes and mental health are all boosted by tea consumption.

Teas may never rival artificially designed sports drinks like Gatorade, Vitaminwater or Powerade for market share. However, tea’s staying power as a brand of sorts reaches back centuries, and its proven health benefits ensure a presence in the fitness realm. To gain a better foothold within sports today, the tea industry should search for a marketing icon or champion – such as Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Tom Brady or Cristiano Ronaldo – to give it the crossover appeal enjoyed by current global brands.

Martin Mulcahey is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., who’s highly sought after in the sports industry. He routinely covers sports, sporting events and health-related topics, in addition to travel, books and music.

Studies Cited in the Article:

Effects of Mate Tea Consumption on Muscle Strength and Oxidative Stress Markers After Eccentric Exercise

Effect of Green Tea Extract Supplementation on Exercise-induced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and Muscular Damage