Nutrition / Food

Are Pre-Workout Drinks Healthy or Harmful?

An expert breaks it down the energizing drinks and powders.

For those looking to boost their workouts, pre-workout drinks seem like a great option. There are a number of different pre-workout drinks on the market. Some may end up doing harm more than good. If you want to stay healthy while maximizing your fitness, you’ll need to choose wisely.

“Pre-workout drinks can benefit you primarily by increasing your energy, muscular strength, and endurance,” says Katie Woeckener, R.D., C.D.E. “However, depending on the brand, some pre-workout drinks are loaded with preservatives, excessive sugar, and unnecessary stimulants.”

Pre-workout drinks can range from single-ingredient to a large mix. It’s important to pay attention to which option is best for you. To make sure you’re staying safe while getting fit, you’ll want to be aware of the important risks and benefits of these popular beverages.

The Benefits

Let’s start with the good. There’s a reason so many people opt for pre-workout drinks, after all. High-energy drinks and workout powders can help give you the energy to improve your performance.

“If they contain caffeine, they can ‘ramp up’ your muscles’ energy house and increase alertness and performance,” Woeckener says. “If they contain BCAA (branched chain amino acids), they help to promote muscle protein synthesis. [This is] especially [true] if it contains leucine.”

These drinks can also help improve your body’s functioning during your workouts. Pre-workout drinks that contain an array of B-vitamins can maintain your body’s metabolism and promote energy, Woeckener says.

Another common ingredient is beetroot juice. It can increase the body’s levels of nitric oxide and improve cardiovascular performance. “Beets or beetroots release nitric oxide. [This] is known to dilate blood vessels for greater blood flow throughout the body,” she says. “The greater blood flow increases endurance and puts less stress on the heart during intense workouts.”

Additionally, pre-workout drinks with creatine can give strength and size to your muscles. Creatine is a substance found naturally in muscle cells. Studies show that it can increase muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance.

Improved energy, better metabolism, and stronger muscles? Sounds great. But there are some downsides to these drinks that are worth paying attention to as well.

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The Risks

Pre-workout drinks are not regulated by the FDA, so safety is a big concern. “The only way to guarantee that a given product contains what it says it contains—and nothing else—is to find a product that is certified through a third-party regulatory body such as NSF or Informed-Choice,” Woeckener says. “Both of these organizations follow a strict vetting process to verify the quality and purity of supplements.”

The caffeine and creatine that most of these drinks contain can also have harmful effects on the body. “Excessive caffeine can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, causing cardiac issues,” Woeckener notes.

It can also affect your sleep cycle. Or [it can] cause other issues such as diarrhea, nausea, or other gut intolerances. Same goes for creatine, which needs food for good absorption.

“If you take creatine before a workout, chances are you are just irritating your gut, which ultimately may be costing you,” Woeckener says. Finally, because creatine and caffeine are diuretics, they can both lead to dehydration.

So, is using a pre-workout drink worth it? Depends on what’s in it. One study from the International Journal of Exercise Science found that pre-workout supplements only increased people’s strength when exercising by 4 to 8 percent compared to the placebo. Additionally, the pre-workout supplements containing caffeine showed the greatest benefits.

Ingredients such as caffeine, creatine, and beetroot juice may help, but they’re not likely to give you superhuman strength. Other ingredients may not even have an impact at all.

Depending on what’s inside your pre-workout drink, you’d be better off sticking to whole foods and a cup of coffee. Check your labels and use these drinks in moderation, and you should be good to go.

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