Last month I had the supreme pleasure of indulging myself in a week-long biking challenge, the 25th annual Ride The Rockies – this year, reputedly the toughest and longest route – about 540 miles and 27,000 feet of climbing in 7 days!  What made this event most meaningful was the company and support of my brother, sister-in-law, and fiancé, not to mention our spectacular Colorado scenery and terrain.  And what made it possible was several months (maybe even a lifetime?) of training, and good nutritional choices along the way.

Maria Uspenski bike challenge 2010

I’ve been a big fan of electrolyte-replacement fluids, carbohydrate drinks, and recovery drinks both during and after endurance events.  But in the weeks leading up to this ride, I was getting tired of consuming as much sugar as our 150-200-mile training weeks had me drinking.  It was the only sugar I was consuming in my diet at this point, and it made me feel like flossing and giving my dental hygienist a call every time I got off the bike.  So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and transition to freshly brewed tea.

Since keeping your digestion under control while consuming 4000+ calories per day is key, the teas we chose to have me cold brew overnight to use to rehydrate during my rides were Hojicha, Green Roasted Mint (both roasted green teas, with moderate doses of caffeine, 20-35 mg per 16-ounce bottle), and Organic Rooibos (caffeine-free).  All three of these teas are extremely low in tannins and super easy on the stomach – no sugar, great flavor, and a robust sense of nourishment.  I carried one bottle of pure water and one bottle of tea with me for my rides, which ranged from 46 to 92 miles.  At my pace, this took anywhere from 4 to 8 hours in the saddle, depending on the grade and the weather conditions.

We’re greeted every few weeks or so with new information about the health benefits of green tea.  The most direct benefits for athletes arise from tea’s rich antioxidant content.  Much research has demonstrated that intense or prolonged exercise generates considerable amounts of reactive oxygen species (oxidants) within the human body.  These reactive oxygen species 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 green tea and rooibos.

Rooibos (Afrikaans for “red bush”) contains no sugars, dyes, or additives; it’s a natural substance, containing naturally occurring levels of sodium and potassium electrolytes, and the minerals calcium, copper, manganese, magnesium, and zinc.  Due to its composition, rooibos has become a popular fluid replacement for athletes in South Africa, where it’s grown.  And we’ve noticed here in Boulder that many climbers like to rehydrate with our Red Rocks, which is red rooibos blended with vanilla and almonds.  Because they’re high in antioxidants and flavonoids, rooibos extracts are used in shampoos and skin-care products as well.

There haven’t been many studies done on tea versus sports drinks, and it’s clear that you’re not going to get any carbohydrate replacement from steeping your leaves – a very necessary step in keeping your body fueled for multi-hour events.  Maybe next year I’ll try grinding them and munching, or else mixing tea with whey protein powder…and we haven’t done a detailed chemical analysis of our rooibos teas, having only tested for caffeine (none) and polyphenol antioxidants (as high as our green teas).

So my experience is purely anecdotal, and consists of a sample size of only one tea-loving body…but it was extremely positive.  I started out every morning with freshly steeped organic Pu’erh – brought the bricks, easy for travel, and of course, my pink Tuffy Steeper.  The teas for the road were simply steeped in a 32-ounce jar overnight, then strained into my plastic bike bottles through the Tuffy.  I alternated between the three, and chose depending on the difficulty of the climbs (when I wanted the caffeine lift!) and the length and heat of the rides.

The green teas gave me just enough of a boost when I needed it, and their flavor and aroma were uplifting and refreshing.  I’m so thankful to have brought these along for the big climbs – we had two days with over 7000 feet of vertical!  And rooibos, you’re my BFF in the desert climes – I now really see why Red Rocks is our most popular iced tea among the Boulder crowd.  (It used to be my warm calming cup, in the evening, with cream).  The red tea was restorative and rehydrating, without any of the artificial feeling in your mouth or between your teeth.  I didn’t have to wait in the long sport drink lines at the aid stations, and I rode faster than most of the folks who did, as did my lovely colleague at The Tea Spot, Andrea Doenges.