Fueling for your workouts can require a little education, planning and practice to amplify results. You probably already know what to do post-workout, munching on a mix of protein and carbs within an hour of your sweat session. And you might even have some go-to gummies or gels for extra long gym sessions or training runs. But what about your pre-workout routine?
Pre-workout supplements, in the form of powders and pills, now saturate the sports nutrition supplement market, boasting benefits like increased energy, power and endurance to help you push harder and gain more. But they’re not for everyone or every workout. Read on to find out the pros and cons of pre-workout blends and whether they’re right for you.
The Pros and Cons of Pre-Workout Supplements
PRO: You might feel more energetic and alert.
“A big part of most pre-workout supplements is their stimulatory effect.”
Many pre-workout mixes pack a big dose of caffeineto add a little bounce to your step. “Caffeine’s proven to help [with energy], because it stimulates the nervous system, which makes your exercise feel less taxing and makes you feel more peppy,” says Matthew Kadey, RD, a registered dietician in Ontario and author of Rocket Fuel. “The huge thing you have to pay attention to is the dose.” Kadey recommends aiming for two to six milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of your bodyweight. And make sure to give your body enough time to digest it before your workout. “It takes 45 to 60 minutes for coffee to reach its peak in your blood, so have it at least 30 minutes beforehand,” he says.
CON: The drink could make you jittery.
Forget about blasting through your sweat session if you feel like your heart is about to beat out of your chest. “Some people can have adverse reactions to stimulants,” says Kadey. Your best bet, he says, is trial and error. Be especially cautious with drinks that add a second stimulant to the caffeine, like guarine.
“A big part of most pre-workout supplements is their stimulatory effect, and it’s common for them to use multiple stimulants,” says Kyle Pfaffenbach, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at Eastern Oregon University and nutrition consultant for the Brooks Beasts Track Club. “Many times, ingredients used are on the banned or high-risk list from USADA and WADA.” Not ingredients you want to get used to sipping pre-sweat. Check here or here for more info on specific words to look for on labels.
PRO: They can enhance your power and help you push it for longer.
Some pre-workout supplements have creatine, which can pump up your power and improve training results, particularly during anaerobic drills. Though it sounds like something that would appeal to bodybuilders only, creatine has also been shown to boost the performance of endurance athlete. It helps them reach peak power output by potentially delaying fatigue, says Kadey. The fine print? Keep in mind, experts and researchers still debate timing and optimal duration of use.
CON: You don’t know what you’re getting.
“For the average population, the extra sugar could be worrisome.”
Sometimes you’ll notice an icon on a product’s label designating that it’s been certified by a third-party, like the NSF (National Science Foundation). But typically, these supplements aren’t regulated by a government agency and don’t need to meet strict guidelines for what goes into the product. “Oftentimes these workout supplements use a ‘proprietary blend’ of ingredients,” says Pfaffenbach. “It’s important for athletes to know exactly how much and what is going into their body. And with these drinks, we often don’t have that exact info.”
PRO: They can help deliver more oxygen to your muscles.
Seek out the words “nitric oxide” on a supplement’s label. This ingredient may help you go strong through a tough session likely by widening the blood vessels, which, in turn, delivers more oxygen to your muscles so you can perform at your peak, explains Kadey. You can also look for mixes made with beets, as this vegetable contains nitrates that then convert to the compound in your body.
CON: You might gain weight.
Part of the energy boost packed in these pre-workout mixes comes from a big helping of sugar. “The sugar is beneficial and necessary for really high-level athletes, but for the average population, the extra sugar could be worrisome,” says Kadey. He notes that the added sweet stuff and high calories of these drinks could easily wind up on your waistline. If you’re going for a pre-workout drink, opt for one with no more than 100 calories per serving. Or instead, stick to a small snack like a banana with a spoonful of peanut butter half an hour before you exercise, suggests Kadey. “That’s enough to tide you over and top off energy stores for your workout,” he says.
PRO: They can reduce muscle breakdown.
Another common ingredient in pre-workout drinks: amino acids. Some research has shown that these protein compounds can reduce the amount your muscles break down during exercise, so you can bounce back from an intense session faster. Similarly, drinks with tart cherry juice can benefit your muscles by helping to reduce soreness. Look for these if you’re doing a workout with a fair amount of impact, like CrossFit or a long run, advises Kadey.
Finding the Right Pre-Workout Mix for You
If you want to give pre-workout supplements a go, look for ones with natural ingredients on the label — like green tea, beets or tart cherry juice. (Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Energy + Focus or Dr. Axe Bone Broth Protein Burst are just a couple good options.) And don’t take it for the first time before a race or other important workout, warns Kadey: “Never try these right before a marathon. The number-one rule is experiment carefully and work up to full doses, especially if [the mix] includes stimulants.”