Are pre-workouts worth taking or should we be plumping for more “natural” stimulants to give us the edge during our workouts? We ask the experts just how safe pre-workouts really are.
If you’ve ever felt deflated before a workout – tired, low energy – then you’ve probably thought about taking a pre-workout. I remember feeling pretty tired after work one day and reaching for a sachet of the stuff en route to a boxing class, hoping that it’d give me a little extra zing. Fast forward an hour to the actual session and I felt like I was on the verge of a heart attack; my heart raced, face sweated and I was punching like an erratic, hyperactive rat. Suffice to say, I drank too much pre-workout. Since then, I’ve swerved taking anything artificial before a session - instead plumping of a cup or two of coffee.
I’m not the only person who’s experienced this kind of side-effect; the pre-workout “itch” is pretty common, as is racing heart and insomnia. So why do so many of us continue to take the stuff, how healthy is it and should we be prioritising less intense stimulants ahead of work outs?
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WHAT ARE PRE-WORKOUTS?
Pre-workout supplements are often colourful and intensely flavoured (note: not always tasty) powders designed to flood your body with various stimulants to give you a massive boost. As well as a tonne of sugar and caffeine, they also usually include nutrients like creatine, beta-alanine, amino acids and nitric oxide agents which work together to help you feel mentally and physically switched on. Usually, pre-workouts come in the form of a powder that gets mixed into a drink to be drunk around 30 minutes before the start of a session. By flooding the body with extra carbs, our blood sugar levels rise and we get a short burst of energy that feels much more significant than the boost from a coffee or banana.
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that combining pre-workout with HIIT workouts resulted in significant increases in VO2 max (the rate at which the body uses oxygen - a key indicator of cardiovascular fitness), training volume and lean body mass.
ARE THEY EFFECTIVE?
“A pre-workout is any supplement (usually a powder drink mix but it could be in another form), that claims to boost workout performance if you consume it beforehand,” explains Registered Nutritionalist, Jennifer Medhurst. “As most supplement companies have a pre-workout supplement, no two are really the same and they can contain wildly different ingredients – which means how they all work will be different. Some pre-workout ingredients are well-studied and can actually help improve your performance, but the majority probably won’t.”
For the pre-workouts that contain ingredients which do show a performance benefit, she goes on, there is another way of getting them: real food. By looking to get our energy primarily from food rather than supplementation, we know exactly what we’re consuming.
ARE THEY SAFE?
Caffeine tends to be the main ingredient in pre-workouts and although it’s the most commonly used drug on the planet, it can have a detrimental impact if taken in excess. As well as upset stomaches and jitters, too much caffeine over a sustained period of time can lead to things like increased blood pressure, insomnia and anxiety. “Most pre-workout formulas contain the same amount of caffeine as 1-2 cups of coffee, however, if you are also consuming caffeine from other sources throughout the day, you could easily be consuming too much and be prone to experiencing adverse side effects,” explains Registered Nutritional Therapist, Lauren Windas.
One can of Monster energy drink has 160mg of caffeine per tin; one scoop of Bulk’s Complete Pre Workout Advanced, on the other hand, has 200mg of caffeine per scoop, while MyProtein’s The Pre Workout has 300mg of caffeine per scoop. Given that standard advice says that up to 400mg of caffeine a day is safe for most healthy adults, having 75% of that daily allowance in one go seems like quite a lot for most people – particularly if you’re also drinking teas, coffees and Cokes at other points throughout the day.
If you’re particularly caffeine-sensitive (i.e you get jittery after one or two cups of coffee) then you’re probably best to avoid any kind of pre-workout but generally speaking, most adults should be able to handle the odd scoop (if, as Lauren says, we’re not also having umpteen cups of coffees or energy drinks outside of the workout). However, since the majority of studies that exist on the subject are done over a relatively short period of time (fewer than eight weeks), we really don’t know what long term impact regularly taking these kinds of supplements has on heart rate, blood pressure and other issues.
Even if you can handle the high caffeine dose that comes with pre-workout, there’s every chance that you might experience a few side effects. These can include totally safe (albeit annoying) symptoms like itching and poor sleep. While they’re nothing to be alarmed at, you might want to consider whether they’re really worth the extra boost during your workout or whether you’d be better off just having a rest day if you’re feeling tired. If you do want to experiment, try taking half a scoop to begin with, see what impact it makes on your session and how your body reacts before increasing the dose.
It’s also worth noting that the supplement industry isn’t regulated in the same way that food and pharmaceuticals are; there have been incidents of pre-workouts being found to contain contaminants such as heavy metals, or banned ingredients, with one study reporting that “many formulations may intentionally contain banned substances as ingredients or unintentionally as contaminants”. While supplementing anything is at our own risk, it is worth looking at where you get your pre-workout from, the ingredient list and whether it’s marketed as a hardcore supplement or not. While it’s not a fail-safe system, products marketed towards more mainstream audiences (like Innermost’s The Energy Booster) are probably going to be more careful about what goes into their products.
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ARE PRE-WORKOUTS REALLY NECESSARY?
“I would always use caution when it comes to stimulants and exercise, particularly if they are being consumed alongside periods of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strenuous resistance exercise,” Windas warns. “Exercise methods such as these can put a strain on our adrenal systems and fire our body’s major stress hormone, cortisol. Chronic caffeine consumption has also been associated with elevated cortisol levels, which is why I recommend opting for non-caffeinated fluids when paired with heavy training periods to avoid further stress to the nervous system.”
But there are plenty of studies that suggest taking a pre-workout really can improve performance and muscle building. Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that pre-workout supplements enhance the performance of regular gym-goers while a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concludes that caffeine works on people’s arousal, mood and concentration – meaning that pre-workouts can help you to focus at the gym better.
As with any supplement, it’s important to know what you’re doing. Taking daily pre-workout can see you building up a tolerance so that it’s no longer so effective – all while having those pesky side effects previously mentioned. We also know that energy drinks have been linked to diabetes, mental health prelims and kidney damage.
COFFEE AS A PRE-WORKOUT
If you don’t want to go down the route of buying a powder or experimenting with synthetic formulas, you could just head to your kitchen cupboard for a dose of energy. Ask any long-distance runner and they’ll tell you that the key to getting them out and on the road is a big cup of coffee and a bowl of oats.
Coffee offers a good dose of caffeine but doesn’t contain anything else – there are no hidden nasties or potent ingredients. It doesn’t contain the extra goodness either like creatine or BCAAs that pre-workouts do but coffee is regulated, unlike many supplements. You know what you’re drinking. As with pre-workouts, you want to drink your cup 30-45 minutes before you intend to exercise and if possible, have it alongside a snack like a banana, bowl of oats or nut butter toast to back the caffeine up with a hit of carb energy.
When asked if coffee makes for a “better” pre-workout than standard powders, Medhurst says that “it’s hard to say as pre-workout supplements are so different, so it depends which one you are comparing it to. Some pre-workouts contain caffeine. Caffeine and coffee have been shown to cause major improvement in performance for endurance athletes (but) the evidence about the effects of caffeine on high-intensity exercise is mixed. For strength or power-based exercises, the research is mostly positive but still mixed.”
OTHER ‘NATURAL’ ALTERNATIVES
If you want to swerve caffeine completely, there are plenty of other natural stimulants that can support a natural release of energy. As Windas explains, “the risks are fewer with natural stimulants in terms of lower risk of adverse consequences,” so if you are sensitive or want to know exactly what you’re consuming, it might be worth exploring alternatives.
Lauren’s top four natural stimulants:
1. Maca: a Peruvian plant that can support hormonal balance and enhance energy, without the blood sugar rollercoaster that is brought about by caffeine.
2. Water: it’s well known that dehydration contributes to symptoms of fatigue, therefore consuming more water (1.5/2 litres daily) is a great way to gain a natural energy boost and avoid any synthetic ingredients.
3. Ginseng: used in traditional Chinese medicine as an energy-replenishing tonic, ginseng is a herb that can alleviate fatigue, enhance memory and concentration. It comes in tea or capsule form and should be available at your health food store.
4. B vitamins: deficiencies in this key nutritional grouping can result in mood problems, fatigue and low concentration. Consuming foods higher in B vitamins such as lean meats, nuts, seeds and whole grains prior to working out would be a great way to gain a natural energy boost, before you consider supplementation.
SHOULD WE DITCH CAFFEINE ALTOGETHER?
Firstly, Medhurst recommends consuming between 200-400mg of caffeine without water (2-4 cups of brewed coffee), 30-60 minutes before exercise to help maximise performance. Any more than that and you’re overdoing it. You also want to avoid taking any caffeine after 3pm if you want to enjoy a good night’s sleep so even if you plan to run long or workout late in the day, it might be worth opting for one of the alternatives above.
As for cutting caffeine completely, that totally depends on you and your body. As outlined, there can be some really great benefits to taking it and coffee, in particular, is full of nutrients like vitamins B2, B3, B5, manganese, potassium and magnesium, as well as being high in antioxidants. However, Medhurst also points to the fact that being coffee-free can reduce anxiety, improve sleep and whiten teeth, as well as helping the gut to better absorb nutrients.
If you do want to use coffee to give you the edge in your workouts, try to follow these three key rules:
- Avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach to reduce a spike in blood sugar
- Drink it separately from meals so that it doesn’t impede the absorption of nutrients (have your breakfast and then a coffee a little later, for example)
- Stop drinking it after 3pm
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Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.
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