We recently reported that Helena Hills of TrueStart Coffee had won the Brand of the Future Award at the Natwest Everywoman Awards. We have caught up with her to find out more about how this inspired triathlete is changing the way we think about caffeine.
Tell us how triathlon was central to the inspiration behind TrueStart:
My husband Simon and I came up with the idea during IronMan training. We were in the habit of having a pre-training coffee with all the early mornings! The thing is, I’m quite sensitive to caffeine. So I noticed I’d be out on the bike one day having heart palpitations and nothing the next day. It was making me feel pretty rubbish and I was moaning about it to Simon – he pointed out it might be the caffeine so we started to read up on it; how much caffeine is good for training? How much is too much? How much is actually in coffee? That was when we found out that the caffeine in coffee is insanely variable – you don’t know whether you’re drinking less than 20mg of caffeine or over 400!! We couldn’t believe it. We thought, “surely we’re not the only people in the world who think a reliably caffeinated coffee would be awesome for sport”.
What made you take the leap from researching this for your personal health benefit, to creating a business?
We’ve always been entrepreneurial – Simon and I had another business together before, which was a hobby really. But TrueStart was different from the word go. When we tested the idea by advertising for pre-orders, people immediately responded incredibly well. It was clear that we’d found a genuine gap in the market, people don’t want synthetic energy drinks any more. Simon and I both absolutely love sport, so we got really excited by the idea of building an awesome sports brand and really believed TrueStart could have a positive impact on people, mentally and physically.
You are specific about the origins of the coffee you’re using across the range. Is there a significance to this?
Absolutely. I used to live in Colombia, so I’m biased, but I think the best coffee in the world comes from there! Our development team is in Colombia and they’re awesome – I love Colombian people. Fundamentally, if the coffee didn’t taste good then the whole idea would have been a non-starter, so we had to source the most premium beans we could find and that’s exactly what we did!
Why is it so important to understand caffeine content when planning nutrition strategies for triathlon?
Caffeine is awesome for endurance. There’s a big but though – if you have too little, it does nothing. If you have too much, you end up with adverse side effects like a dodgy tummy or jitters. Like every other aspect of your nutrition, it’s important to know what works for you and stick to it. When it comes to sport, it’s important to regulate your caffeine intake and the variation in normal coffee just doesn’t allow that.
As a triathlete, how has the research for your business affected your own nutrition strategy for training and racing?
It’s actually simplified it. We’ve always been quite traditional when it comes to sports nutrition – I like ‘real food’ and natural ingredients – and now I’m confident in keeping it fairly simple and have met lots of brilliant nutritionists and coaches along TrueStart’s journey that have really educated me. I try to push a lot of that information and education out via our blog, to help others too. Sports nutrition can really confuse people as there’s a lot of misinformation and mixed opinions out there. Fundamentally, it’s about knowing your body and racing with the same nutrition that you train with.
Your website talks about ‘coffee powered sports nutrition’, so is it designed for athletes to drink while they’re training?
Yes. TrueStart is all about the clean, natural caffeine boost. We started as a pre-training drink, but TrueStart is widely used during endurance training and racing. That’s part of the reason why we developed the Hero caffeine bars, because people were making their own to take with them! TrueStart also works with cold water and if I’m honest, we didn’t even know that at first! Our customers started doing it, I’m obsessed with it now. When you’re out for a long ride, cold coffee in a bottle is really nice. Especially if you’ve had one too many sugary gels, makes a nice change.
There’s also been research more recently about caffeine speeding up the rate at which your body absorbs muscle glycogen, so it’s useful in recovery too.
Across the three disciplines that make up triathlon, and the variety of distances involved, is there any advice you can offer to make sure triathletes are getting the most from the drink?
Yes. Caffeine is different for everyone – some people have a high tolerance and some people have a low tolerance (a bit like alcohol). The perfect amount also depends on your body weight, so the key is working out what works for you, then sticking to it. I recommend to first try one serving of TrueStart (a scoop, sachet or Hero bar) 10-30 minutes before training, then increase the dose if you need to. I tend to have one serving when I need a pick-me-up in the office for example, and two servings before a hard training session.
Top tip: TrueStart works with cold water too. I keep sachets in my bike’s top tube bag and whack them in my water bottle when I need a boost. The Hero bars are ace as a whole food breakfast bar, or during a longer run or ride. The beauty of TrueStart is you can customize your caffeine intake and feel confident that you’re going to feel great every time!
If someone has been inspired to start a business due to their own experiences within triathlon, what one piece of advice would you offer them?
First, validate your idea. Check whether people would actually buy it. Then, go for it! It’s all about taking action. Share your idea with others and ask for advice, you’ll be amazed how much people are willing to help. Don’t be scared to share. So many people keep their brilliant ideas a secret which means they end up going nowhere. A long time ago, someone told me never to underestimate other people’s laziness! It might sound harsh, but it’s true that 99.9% of people are not going to steal your idea! Generally speaking, they wouldn’t have the passion required to get someone else’s idea off the ground.
Fans of TrueStart have said:
“It’s important that I have a clean diet (with the exception of chocolate & cake obviously…). TrueStart Coffee enables me to still enjoy coffee. I know exactly what I am consuming. I use TrueStart Coffee every morning or before a training session where I need to keep my focus.” #TeamTrueStart triathlete and AG World Champ, Emma Deary
“I drink TrueStart Coffee before every training session or race to really get my mind in game mode and to get the most out of my body, although you can have it black or white hot or cold I always go for hot and white with a cheeky sugar every time. I don’t just use it for sport though as I need to focus at work and have a top up just after lunch to see me through to the end of the day before finishing work and going training again.” #TeamTrueStart triathlete and AG British Champion, Brett Halliwell
“TrueStart was a key part of my training for the British track cycling championships. Getting to the track for 6am each week required very early starts and the simplicity of TrueStart meant it was the perfect caffeine source to kick start my session. Over the weekend of the national champs, TrueStart was critical to my performance. I had dialled in its use at previous low key events, where I was taking 200mg onboard 1 hour prior to the race. Keeping my caffeine source natural definitely helped over the multiple high intensity races where complete concentration and effort is a necessity to high performance.” Dan Bigham