Will a pre-workout supplement boost your performance and help you get results fast?
Pre-Workout Supplements: A necessary part of an athlete’s success?
Recently, I put a call out on Instagram (@steph.the.sport.dietitian) asking my followers for blog posts they wanted to see. It’s really a sneaky way for me to generate blog ideas without having to think of them myself. Genius.
Anyway, one of the topics that someone suggested was about pre-workout supplements. I loved the idea because sports supplements aren’t really something I’ve written much about before, despite them being a super common topic of conversation in my coaching sessions!
So, there’s no time like the present to have a chat about pre-workout supplements. I’m going to be breaking down the facts vs fiction, and provide some suggestions on what to look for if you happen to be in the market.
What are Pre-Workout Supplements?
A quick search on popular supplement websites will turn up hundreds of results for pre-workout products. Generally speaking, they come in either a pill or powder format and are meant to be taken some length of time prior to exercise. The flavor, packaging, and obvious target market varies, and is always an interested lesson in branding/marketing strategies (You want a great example of sexism in marketing, just take a look at supplement packages!)
I have to laugh a little at the way these companies market their products. Names like “Beast”, “military grade”, “Combat”, “Anarchy”, “Wreckage” boast the capabilities of their contents like most of the people who buy this stuff aren’t just working out at the local YMCA. And pink for the ladies of course. But, we’re here to talk about what’s IN the plastic tubs, not my personal opinions on the companies’ marketing tactics.
Let’s start by taking a look at the most common ingredients in these “Beast Mode” pre-workout products:
“Fat burning” pre-workout pills and pre-workout powders
The Pills: These handy little guys promise to literally melt the fat off your body. With brand names you might recognize (like Hydroxycut), these supplements claim to give you the extra boost you need to look like a cover model ASAP
The Powders: A drinkable alternative to the pre-workout pills, the powders are a bit more complex and tend to have a much longer ingredient list. Just about every supplement company has a hand in the pre-workout powder market. They’ve usually got pumped up sounding names like ‘ingnite’, ‘ripped’, or ‘mutant madness’. And pink for the ladies of course.
What’s really in them?
Depending on the product (there’s endless variability between brands), most contain a combination of:
- stimulants (including caffeine and other caffeine-containing plants)
- weight loss “stuff” (like green tea extract, raspberry ketones, or CLA)
- animo acids
- sometimes ingredients that could actually be useful (read on to find out what those might be!)
The thing you really need to know is that the ‘active ingredient’ in most of these products is actually good ol’ caffeine. And, to be totally 100% honest, this is about all they really have going for them. Caffeine is actually quite well-researched as a potential performance enhancer. Some people experience improved athletic performance from using caffeine- however, caffeine may not be the best supplement for everyone. Genetic differences between people can alter how their bodies process and use caffeine, which means it can be great for some folks, but actually detrimental for others.
Read more about how your genes can influence your best diet here!
but, do they work?
Yes, taking a caffeine-containing substance will most likely give you a pre-workout “boost”. This is especially true if you belong to the genotype group that enjoys caffeine’s performance enhancing effects.
Some of the other ingredients in pre-workouts like yerba mate or guarana are actually caffeine-containing plants. This is why people often feel the effects of a pre-workout supplement significantly more than say, their morning cup of coffee. The overall caffeine load is much higher than a simple cup of coffee!
Other ingredients like taurine are thought to work alongside caffeine to enhance it’s effects as well. This is why taurine is so frequently found in things like preworkout supplements or energy drinks.
The risk however is that the actual amount of caffeine in these products can be unknown. A company may use a set amount of actual caffeine in their blend, but then add in extra sources. This can put the total actual caffeine content way over the top of what’s considered safe. This is especially true for those who don’t have a caffeine-friendly genotype. There may also be safety concerns with some of the other unregulated and unstudied ingredients or contaiminants.
What about the other ingredients in pre-workout supplements?
As for the other stuff? Clinical trials have not shown any meaningful benefit to taking most of the other herbal ingredients. Unfortunately, many of them just have no evidence at all. This doesn’t mean they don’t work. It just means no one has really put the work into figuring out whether they do or not. Companies don’t need to prove their product works in order to sell it, so there is really nothing in it for them if they spend the money conducting proper clinical trials on their supplements.
Without data on the proper timing or dosing of these ingredients, supplement manufacturers are left doing things a little ‘willy nilly’. To err or the side of caution with untested ingredients, pre-workouts might contain only miniscule amounts of some of them. Then, they’ll use huge amounts of other ones (like stimulants) that provides customers with the ‘feeling’ that it’s working.
Even if there are some useful ingredients in a preworkout, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take them all in combination. This is because you can’t control the dosing of each individual ingredient. When we talk about performance nutrition or supplementation, we generally use dosing schedules using an athlete’s body weight (for example caffeine the range could be anywhere from 3-6 mg per kilogram of a person’s body weight). If you’re purchasing a supplement that contains multiple ingredients in various amounts, it’s likely you’ll wind up with too much of one and put yourself at risk, or too little of anther to have any benefit.
The Bottom Line
My advice? Don’t waste your money on the fancy pills or powders. They’re over-the-top expensive, and often provide nothing more than what you can get from a cup of coffee. If you find that a little caffeine before exercises lightens your step, feel free to grab a cup before heading to the gym. Caffeine is one of the most well-researched pre-workout supplements out there and it’s benefits are legit. If you’re not a regular caffeine consumer already, be sure to talk to a Registered Dietitian about how much is safe for you. And, use with caution if you have any pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, or are pregnant. For competitive athletes, there have been stories of pre-workouts containing banned substances. This has resulted in serious penalties for the athletes who take them. So buyer beware.
Creatine is another popular sport supplement that while effective, can sometimes be misused. It is a substance that our bodies naturally produce, which plays a role in energy production. When we have to generate force to lift a weight, creatine is part of that mechanism. The idea behind creatine supplementation is that if we have more creatine available in our working muscles, we will be able to generate more quick, explosive power.
Interestingly, this has shown to be true in research studies. However, that doesn’t mean that we should all just start scooping heaps of creatine into our shaker cups every day. It’s important to know the proper timing, use, and dosage of creatine as well as be aware of potential side effects.
Creatine supplementation is best used when training goals are to increase strength and power (as opposed to working on endurance training or building a lot of muscle mass).
Proper dosing includes a loading phase, and a maintentance phase, which then is followed with a break from taking the supplement at all. It’s also important if you are going to use creatine, to use creatine monohydrate which is the only type shown to work in research studies.
Should you try it?
It depends! When used properly, creatine supplementation has been shown to be effective and safe. The main side effect noted in studies is water retention, which may be a deterrent for athletes participating in very weight-sensitive sports. That being said though, if your goal is to increase high-intensity strength and power, it may be worth considering creatine alongside a well-designed training program.
For a more in-depth look at Creatine for athletic performance, click here!
Nitrate is a common supplement found in some pre-workout supplements, as well as on it’s own. It is usually in the form of beetroot juice or capsules. Beets (as well as spinach, arugula, and celery) contain high amounts of these naturally-occurring nitrates. These nitrates play a key role in muscle function during exercise. The idea is that if you supplement with additional nitrates, you’ll see enhanced performance- due to a combination of increased blood flow to the working muscles and stronger muscle contractions. You’ll also need less oxygen to get the job done during aerobic exercise.
Nitrate supplementation has actually been shown to work fairly well in research studies, but a few questions do remain. Does the amount of nitrates a person usually eats in their diet impact the benefit they may gain from supplements? Is there an optimal timing of nitrate supplementation to get the most benefit? We definitely need some more studies to work out these interesting questions. It is also important to note that not all nitrate supplements contain the same amount of this active ingredient. According to the IOC (International Olympic Committee), 400mg is the optimal nitrate dose.
Should you try it?
Generally speaking, nitrate supplementation has been shown to be safe and effective. Both for higher-intensity exercise and new research supports it’s ability to enhance endurance performance as well. The main side effect reported is gastrointestinal upset for some people, so if you do plan to try it I would suggest giving it a go carefully and near a bathroom. Definitely don’t try this one for the first time on the same day as a race or competition!
Sodium Bicarbonate is a substance found in our bodies that acts as a buffer to help get rid of lactic acid buildup in the muscles during exercise. The theory behind it’s supplementation is that if we can increase this buffering capacity we can perform high-intensity activity for a longer period of time. In research studies, it has been shown to be effective for high-intensity activity such as sprinting.
Should you try it?
There’s one fairly significant downside to sodium bicarbonate supplementation: gastrointestinal upset. Unfortunately for many athletes, the amount of sodium bicarbonate needed to improve performance is far more than their gut can take prior to exercise. So proceed with caution on this one- proper timing and dosing may be the key!
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that acts as another type of buffering agent. It can also help us perform high-intensity activities for longer, just using a different mechanism than some of the other substances I mentioned above.
We get beta-alanine from our foods when we eat things like red meat, poultry, or fish, but some research has supported the notion that supplementing with extra beta-alanine can have positive impacts on performance during high-intensity activites.
Should you try it?
That being said, some side effects from beta-alanine supplementation have been reported. Things like skin rashes or tingling/pins and needles in the hands and feet. Given that most people who consume animal foods would be getting a good source of beta-alanine in their diet anyway, I’d probably skip this one for now to avoid any potential side effects. If you’re a vegan athlete however, it might be worth consideration.
So, should you use pre-workout supplements?
Supplements that have solid evidence to support improving athletic performance are few and far between. The good news is, the things that do work tend to be fairly inexpensive and accessible like caffeine. Before heading out to your local supplement store though, be sure to take some time to think about your fitness goals and determine if pre-workout supplements are something you really need.
For most people (especially beginners), simply being consistent with your training routine is going to give you great results for a long time before you really need to start taking anything extra. If you’re an athlete involved in competition, take care to only use brands that can guarantee they do not contain any potentially banned substances and have been third-party tested for purity.
As always, if you aren’t sure, a Registered Dietitian who specializes in sport nutrition can help!
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