Lifestyle04 Feb 2021

The Athletic Life: adding a cuppa to your training routine


The cuppa ritual (© Christel Saneh)

Kate CarterExploring the pros and cons of making a cup of tea (or coffee!) an integral part of your pre-run ritual.

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


If you can function without caffeine then I salute you: you are certainly a better human being than me. By many people’s standards I’m not even that much of an addict - a few cups of tea in the morning, the odd coffee, that’s it. But try to get me to put together a coherent sentence before that crucial first cup of tea in the morning - or, god forbid, go for a run without one - and I will regard you with the horror most people reserve for slugs in their salad.

It is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged (by the British) that only the British can make proper tea. Don’t argue with us, at this point in history it’s possibly our sole remaining achievement. But seriously - if you order tea in a restaurant or hotel, and the waiter or waitress brings you a cup of hot water with a tea bag on the saucer, then it is too late. The tea is deceased. RIP that tea. You cannot make a proper cup of tea without boiling water straight from the kettle (don’t even get me started on countries that don’t seem to have kettles, yes America, I’m looking at you). Making tea from a lukewarm cup of water is about as effective as brewing up from the sweepings of the tea factory floor - which is what a man in a tea factory in India once told me went into a certain popular global brand’s teabags.

But coffee?

Coffee is universal. I’ll leave the coffee-producing nations to argue over who makes the best stuff, but certainly the most effective pre-run coffee I’ve ever had was in Ethiopia. Want to know the secret of Ethiopian distance running? You can talk about altitude and attitude - and read Michael Crawley’s new book on the subject - but personally I maintain it's the coffee. That stuff is actual rocket fuel. I once had the good fortune to sit and interview Haile Gabreselaisse in his office in Addis Ababa over a coffee so strong I’m pretty sure it holds a world record in weightlifting. 

Of course, I should put here a strong health warning. Caffeine used to be banned for use in sports for a reason - and too much is most definitely a bad idea. It is, after all, a drug, and a pretty effective one. In 2014 a research report said “it helps pretty much every kind of endurance exercise, giving a performance advantage of 1.5 to 5%”. And though no longer banned, it is still on WADA’s watch list, and its levels in athletes is tracked. And performance aside, too much caffeine is bad for you, may make you feel jittery, raise your heart rate and cause sleeping difficulties. So do not take this stuff lightly - or too frequently. The Mayo Clinic suggests up to four cups of coffee a day is ok. 

In fact, it's quite common in amateur athletes, at least of my acquaintance, to drastically cut down on their caffeine intake, however modest it is, before a big race, so that the one cup they have beforehand really does have an effect. And even if a cup of java isn’t their thing, marathon runners might take gels with caffeine in them, particularly later on in the race when they really need not just the carbs in the gel, but something of a mental lift. 

However, with races a mere dream at the moment, my pre-run espresso is not so much a performance aid as a ritual, part of the process that helps me get out of the door into the winter weather. Get the running kit on, make sure the watch is charged, find the right shoes, double check the temperature to get the right number of pairs of gloves/buffs/extra accessories as appropriate. Open the front door, close the front door again. Remember the keys. Put the keys down. Immediately lose the keys and spend five minutes finding them again, exactly where I put them down. Then, the last part of the process, put the coffee machine through its paces, hissing and whirring out my espresso. Drink, then - excuses used up and faffing complete - go run.

If I had my way, there would be one of those coffee trucks with proper machines on hand before all race starts. Actually, not just races - club sessions too. Come to think of it, I’d like one to follow me around when I’m training. There’s a couple of runs I vividly remember in the depths of marathon training where a brief stop for a takeaway espresso was the difference between running those extra few miles home, and bailing at the nearest bus stop. If the coffee truck with freshly made brew isn’t available, then I will settle for a cyclist to loyally follow me around, nursing a thermos of piping hot coffee. Applications for this prestigious job are now being considered. 

And while I’m hiring, and rearranging the furniture of all races to satisfy my own personal requirements, let's do something about the finish line offering. When crossing that line, you may get offered an energy drink, water, or sometimes (sponsor dependent) a no-alcohol beer. To be honest, anything tastes pretty good after a marathon, or anything that removes that gritty, dry, gel-sticky taste from your dehydrated mouth. But what I would really really like after running 26.2 miles is a nice cup of tea. Just as long as it's made with freshly boiled water from a proper kettle and served in a good-sized mug. I don’t ask for much.