It’s a supplement usually taken before exercise to boost performance, though ingredients can differ widely. So what is pre-workout and should you be taking it?
Pre-workout supplements are designed to provide energy to fuel workouts and improve athletic performance. Pre-workouts are generally intended to be taken 30-60 minutes before exercise to get the most out of ingredients such as caffeine. Still, some people choose to take them during their sessions. If you’re after the best pre-workouts on the market, it’s important to know which ingredients you should be looking for.
What are pre-workout powders made from?
Pre-workouts are powdered and contain a mixture of ingredients that typically include carbohydrates and caffeine alongside other compounds such as beta-alanine, creatine and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
This is important to fuel workouts and is a common component of most pre-workout formulations. The types of carbohydrates added are very quickly digested, such as maltodextrin. This can be useful for morning workouts if you train on an empty stomach.
Caffeine is commonly used to improve alertness and reduce the perception of exertion during exercise. Research has shown that caffeine can improve endurance capacity (exercise time to fatigue) and enhance performance in short-term high-intensity exercise. Pre-workouts tend to contain the recommended dosage of around 200-300mg, and it’s more effective when taken with a source of carbohydrate.
When you exercise at a high intensity, the increased production of hydrogen ions can increase the acidity in the muscle, causing fatigue. Beta-alanine helps increase a substance in the body compound called carnosine. That ‘mops up’ hydrogen ions to regulate muscle acidity, providing resistance to fatigue and potentially improving performance capacity.
Beta-alanine has been shown to have beneficial effects during activities of high-intensity effort. This includes short (1-7 minutes) sustained high-intensity sports such as track cycling, swimming or middle-distance running. It also includes activities that involve high-intensity efforts such as resistance training and team sports.
This compound has been shown to enhance performance in activities involving repeated high-intensity efforts. It has also led to more significant gains in lean muscle mass, strength and power.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
These are a common addition to pre-workouts. Research suggests they help with muscle growth and decrease muscle soreness when taken before working out. These are widely available in diets rich in protein. So it’s debatable whether or not it’s necessary to take them in a supplement.
Nitric oxide precursors
These include L-arginine and L-taurine, which are thought to increase nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide acts as a vasodilator, relaxing blood vessels to improve blood flow. That in turn helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to working muscles during exercise. These are best used to support high-intensity, short-duration efforts and have been shown to help enhance athletic performance, according to research.
Do pre-workouts help to improve performance?
Pre-workouts may help to improve performance, but this is more likely to result from the carbohydrates and caffeine in the mixture. The supplements tend to throw everything into the mix to create a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Still, only some of these ingredients necessarily suit every type of sport. In some cases, certain compounds may have a negative impact.
For instance, beta-alanine may be suitable for a middle-distance runner. However, taking creatine could cause unwanted weight gain, affecting their power-to-weight ratio.
Ingredients such as beta-alanine and creatine also need to be taken in a loading phase to be effective. Taking pre-workouts sporadically won’t achieve this so improved performance is unlikely.
Are pre-workouts healthy?
Nothing is particularly unhealthy about pre-workouts if they are in the recommended dosage. However, some people may have uncomfortable side effects that could affect their training capabilities.
Pre-workouts are designed to enhance your workout but not carry you through them. Suppose you regularly need more energy to get through a training session. In that case, other lifestyle factors such as your diet, hydration, sleep pattern and stress levels are worth considering.
Should anyone avoid pre-workouts?
Pre-workouts are considered safe for healthy adults. However, if you have any health conditions, you should check with a health professional before using them. There is no standardised mixture for pre-workouts, so you may also want to check the ingredient list.
If you’re a professional sportsperson, always check that your supplements are Informed-Sport approved before taking them. The Healthspan Elite All-Blacks range is a good example of IS-approved supplements.
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What are the side effects of pre-workouts?
Pre-workout powders are generally safe if you stick to the recommended dosage. However, only some people react the same way; some may find certain ingredients disagree.
Very high doses of caffeine don’t seem to have any additional performance benefits to the recommended dosage of 200-300mg. In some people, it can lead to increased anxiety, nausea and restlessness. High amounts of caffeine can also disrupt sleep patterns. That’s especially true if someone is a slow metaboliser of caffeine or taking the supplement to fuel evening training sessions.
While pre-workouts tend to contain around 200-300mg of caffeine, they can inadvertently be consumed alongside coffees and teas. So be aware of how much caffeine you are getting, especially if you are sensitive. You could choose a caffeine-free pre-workout.
Beta-alanine is safe, but some people can experience skin rashes and transient paranesthesia, a prickling sensation in the arms, legs and feet. This sensation is painless but is described as tingling or numbness.
These sweeteners, also known as polyols, include xylitol and sorbitol and can lead to uncomfortable side effects. In some people it can cause bloating, gas and diarrhoea. Not all pre-workouts contain them, as some may have less than others. So like all supplements, it may be a case of trial and error to find one that agrees with you.
Pre-workouts are designed to improve energy levels and performance, but only some of their health claims stack up with research. While they are safe to use, they are not essential for health or performance, but if they work for you, there is no reason to stop taking them.