Updated 06 October 2015

Rooibos: an alternative energy drink

Endurance athletes may be better off consuming simple, inexpensive, home-made rooibos drinks than relying exclusively on expensive, over-hyped energy products, endurance athlete, microbiologist and nutritionist Hannele Steyn-Kotze says.

She should know what she’s taking about. After 25 years of competitive racing her CV includes 11 Triathlon World Cups, nine Mountain Bike World Cups, a ladies’ Cape Epic Win, numerous endurance World Championships and two more pages of achievements.

Following her 10th Cape Epic and a number of 200km one-day races, Hannele began experimenting with alternatives as she found that the sugars in some energy products did not work well. Other endurance athletes she talked to related similar experiences.

Artificial sweeteners, flavourings and colourants

"There have been a lot of studies into exercise and nutrition, but very little has focused on how to sustain energy levels during multi-day events," she says.

"I’m not saying that there aren’t some good energy products out there – I continue to use a very good, scientifically researched nutrition product and energy drink to supplement natural products - but not all of them work optimally for endurance athletes.

"Another concern is that some are packed with sugars, vegetable fat, artificial sweeteners, flavouring agents and colourants. Putting these into your body on a sustained basis, particularly if you are constantly pushing your limits, isn’t a good idea."

Instead of relying entirely on supplements, Hannele has gone back to basics, experimenting with natural products which are easily digested.

"I love rooibos anyway and it also ticked all the other boxes; it’s natural, easily digested and packed with anti-oxidants, so it’s really healthy.  I decided to try it in training, but to concentrate the flavour opted to use rooibos espresso powder. I mixed it with a little bit of honey, for fast energy and milk to provide fats and protein. Viola – a tasty, healthy, natural energy drink."

Field testing

She says the milk can be replaced with other options such as soy, rice or nut milk, or for shorter races omitted altogether. Diabetics can use Xylitol.

Depending on how organised you are you mix it up and freeze it overnight or make it fresh in the morning. There’s no risk of it going off as you should be consuming at least 500ml to 750ml of liquid an hour.

Being Hannele, of course she’s done extensive field testing.

"I raced my whole eight days of the Epic and the Trans Karoo (a 240km one-day race) drinking only my rooibos mix and water. It worked like a charm. The proof of the pudding: I was the first lady to finish the Trans Karoo and the seventh solo rider in a field of 250."

While Hannele acknowledges that different combinations will work for different people she’s found that combining the natural products and nutritional supplements work well for her. She uses a top protein supplement for recovery and to optimise her daily protein intake.

The South African Rooibos Council is currently funding a research project into rooibos and exercise, headed by Professor Jeanine Marnewick from the Oxidative Stress Unit at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

- (South African Rooibos Council press release)


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