Pre-workout supplements. Your BFF is taking them and so are some of your colleagues at work. But you’ve heard that they can be full of artificial nasties. And isn’t the research behind their benefits sketchy at best?
Here’s everything you need to know about pre-workout supplements before stocking up – or stepping back.
PRE-WORKOUT SUPPLEMENTS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHAT IS A PRE-WORKOUT?
In the simplest of forms, a pre-workout is a supplement designed to get you to your goals, fast – be it to deadlift your body weight, strip excess fat or power harder at Crossfit. A fitness-world magic potion of sorts.
“Pre-workout supplements are a hot topic among athletes and gym goers right now,” says registered dietitian at Doctify, Katherine Kimber.
“However, although they may play a role in enhancing the performance of well-trained athletes, for most people, a well-balanced diet – especially one which is timed appropriately – should be enough. At the end of the day, a deficient eating pattern cannot be out trained – or out supplemented.”
So, in essence, maxing your nutrition naturally then kickstarting your workout with something as simple as a banana and an espresso shot, could produce similar – if not better – results (at a reduced cost and while ticking off one of your five-a-day; #multitasking).
But, if that is the case, and pre-workouts aren’t really necessary, why all the hype? After all, surely all those pre-workout powders, gels, liquids, bars, tablets and chewing gums that you’ve seen on the market can’t be a waste of money.
“While some pre-workout supplements may contain safe energy-boosting ingredients, others, especially those containing high doses of ingredients, could be pointless and potentially harmful,” Kimber says. Furthermore, not all the ingredients have scientific support behind them.
So, when it comes to what pre-workouts are worth your attention? Read on.
PRE-WORKOUT INGREDIENTS: WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
According to Kimber, there are only three key players worth zooming in on.
What it does: Obvs, right. These give you energy to ensure you can perform at your best.
Kimber says: “Your body relies on its carbohydrate stores (glycogen) for fuel during a workout so, along with a regular eating pattern and balanced diet, consuming carbohydrates pre-workout would be a good way to ensure energy levels remain topped up.”
Maximise the benefits: Consume 15g carbohydrate at least 30 minutes before you work out.
What it does: Need an instant pick-me-up? This is just the ticket.
Kimber says: “Caffeine is a stimulant that has been shown in research to support maintaining high-intensity exercise of 20-60 minutes for longer, with reduced feelings of fatigue. Doses as low as 1.5mg/kg (around an 85-100mg cup) have been shown to be effective.”
Maximise the benefits: Have caffeine 15-60 minutes before you start exercising.
What it does: This is one of the most popular performance enhancing pre-workouts. Especially for those of you wanting to smash your metcon. It’s also one of the safest pre-workout supplements.
Kimber says: “Studies suggest that it may increase exercise capacity and muscle mass during high-intensity, intermittent training.”
Maximise the benefits: Research suggests taking creatine monohydrate after your training is could be better than consuming it before.
PRE-WORKOUT INGREDIENTS: WHAT TO SWERVE
“As the research into these is limited,” says Kimber, ‘they should only be taken under professional guidance.”
What it does: This is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid that gets converted to the chemical called carnosine. Which matters because?
Kimber says: “Carnosine plays an important role in maintaining your cells’ pH. Too much acid accumulation by muscles is thought to contribute to fatigue. Clinical trials into its benefits as a pre-supplement, however, have produced conflicting results. It may also trigger feelings of pins and needles.”
What it does: Chances are you’ve heard a lot about this pre-workout. It contains the three ‘essential’ amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Kimber says: “There is some evidence that using BCAAs can reduce post-exercise soreness but more research is required to determine the preferred combination. As BCAAs occur in nature (i.e. animal protein) in a 2:1:1 ratio (leucine: isoleucine: valine) this is what is usually used.”
What it does: This is a “conditionally essential amino acid”, which basically means it can be made by the body – except during times of stress or illness.
Kimber says: “Glutamine is necessary for building muscle and is therefore believed to enhance performance (although current evidence is inconclusive).”
L-CITRULLINE AND L-ARGININE
What it does: These pre-workout supplements are used to maximise blood flow – and energy and oxygen flow – around your body and to your muscles during your workout.
Kimber says: “Very little research has been conducted in humans and, at present, there is no evidence to support a performance-enhancing effect.”
HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR PRE-WORKOUT SUPPLEMENT
If you’ve read all this and you’re keen to see what a pre-workout can do for you and your training, make sure you keep the following top tips from Kimber in mind before loading up your basket:
1. Keep things simple.
When it comes to pre-workout supplements, it’s not always the case that the fancier ingredients there are, the better. In fact, you might want to opt for a single ingredient product instead.
“Many pre-workout formulas contain a mystery mixture of ingredients, some of which have no evidence to support their benefit and others, which may even be harmful,” says Kimber.
“Remember that pre-workouts are not regulated for safety.” That magic blend might also only contain trace elements of what it is you’re after – as well as lots of what you’re not: hello, artificial sweeteners.
2. Read the label.
With that in mind, always check for an indication that the pre-workout product has been tested for quality and safety (if there’s mention of NSF International, that’s a good start, Kimber recommends), and/or bears the Informed-Choice logo.
“Or go to the organisation website for a list of the supplements they approve of,” Kimber says.
3. Try a sachet before you buy in bulk.
“Not only to check for tolerance, but also taste,” Kimber says.
4. Get expert advice.
“Some dietary supplements used to enhance exercise and athletic performance can have side effects and might interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications,” Kimber says.
If you’re worried, talk to a healthcare pro.
5. Make sure your choice is legit.
Not all pre-workout sups will be accepted by sports governing bodies so if you’re training for a particular competition, get clued up, Kimber says.
And remember: “Nutrition doesn’t come in a tub.”
Want to read more? We’ve answered the questions that are on your lips – can pre-workout drinks really help burn more calories and how can you keep up healthy steady weight loss?