Coffee and tea are likely the easiest, most convenient, and healthiest energy sources. Yet, some fitness enthusiasts want a little extra performance boost, or they don’t drink coffee or tea regularly and need an energy kick before exercise. Enter the world of pre-workout drinks. The term “pre-workout” generally refers to an ergogenic aid—a substance that helps improve athletic performance—in liquid, pill, or powder form. When considering whether or not to use a pre-workout (or any supplement), an individual risk–benefit analysis should be used to determine whether the supplement is appropriate for you.
Of course, there are several Aaptiv energy boosting yoga and meditation routines such as “Blast of Energy,” “Emotional Energy,” and “Activate Your Energy” for a 100 percent natural way to motivate yourself. We asked Anne L’Heureux, RD, LD, SGX about some of the common ingredients in the market’s most popular pre-workouts.
“Whether you are looking for a product to enhance stamina, power output, or overall energy you will want to follow the general rule of thumb that a short ingredient list (<ten ingredients) with names you can recognize are important factors,” says L’Heureux. “But, also remember to educate yourself. Just because you don’t recognize an ingredient doesn’t mean [that] it is bad, it may just mean that you haven’t heard of it yet. Take the time to look it up and judge for yourself.”
Read on to find out which ingredients to look out for in your next pre-workout.
Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks. Consuming three to six mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, an amount equivalent to about two-and-one-half cups of percolated coffee, up to an hour before exercising has been shown to improve endurance, according to Visualizing Nutrition: Everyday Choices. A 2014 Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry study found that an energy drink containing two-and-one-half mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight increased time to exhaustion during a treadmill running test, meaning that the participants were able to run for longer versus the control group.
“Studies examining caffeine and exercise performance used doses ranging from one to 13 mg/kg bodyweight, with a commonly studied dose of five to six mg/kg,” L’Heureux says. “Although moderate caffeine use seems to be safe, intakes greater than 500 mg/day or nine to 13 mg/kg body weight per day may result in undesirable side effects including dehydration, high blood pressure, heart problems, or gastrointestinal upset.”
As for shorter, more intense activities like weightlifting, the research is more scant. A Journal of Sport Science & Medicine study found that a pre-workout beverage with caffeine, taurine, beta-alanine, and other ingredients resulted in more reps on the barbell back squat and barbell bench press compared to a placebo. If taken at the correct dosage, caffeine can enhance performance, especially endurance.
Creatine is a nitrogen-containing compound that can be synthesized in the liver and kidneys and is consumed in the diet in meat and milk. The more creatine consumed, the greater the amount of creatine stored in the muscles and used for energy.
“When we exercise, energy is created through the ATP-Cr system (adenosine triphosphate- creatine) and this helps support muscle contraction and force behind movements,” says L’Heureux. “This is a rapid energy production system within the muscle itself. Creatine ingested through diet helps assure adequate creatine is available to generate this process.”
Creatine supplementation has been shown to increase muscle creatine phosphate levels and improve performance in high-intensity exercise lasting 30 seconds or less, according to Visualizing Nutrition. Creatine in combination with strength training has been found to increase muscle strength and size more than resistance training alone. L’Heurex provides the following creatine tips:
- Loading phase of 20-25g/day or .3g/kg of body weight per day split between two, four, or five ingestions.
- Follow with a maintenance period of three to five g/day or .03g/kg/day.
- Supplementing around the time of resistance training improves adaptations at a cellular and sub-cellular level.
- Since carbohydrates cause an uptake of energy into the cells, taking creatine with a protein/carbohydrate source may help absorption.
Carnitine is an amino acid derivative made in our bodies from the essential amino acids lysine and methionine, but can also be found in fish and red meats. L’Heureux says carnitine’s primary role is to transport long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria so they can be oxidized (“burned”) to produce energy. In other words, carnitine may help our bodies use fat for energy, helping us work out harder without caffeine.
A 2011 Journal of Physiology study found that recreational athletes supplementing with two grams of carnitine and 80 grams of carbohydrates twice daily during 24 weeks of exercise used half of the glycogen (stored glucose) compared to the control group during exercise at 50 percent of their VO2max (low intensity). Instead of burning carbs for fuel, they burned fat. Plus, the study participants taking carnitine improved their work output by 35 percent compared to control. When the athletes cycled at 80 percent of the VO2max, they produced significantly less lactate (a biomarker for fatigue) compared to the control group, suggesting that carnitine can help improve endurance performance.
Citrulline is an amino acid produced by the body that improves lower body strength in females, according to a recent European Journal of Nutrition study. Citrulline has also been shown, in a 2016 Journal of Dietary Supplements study, to improve upper body strength in males. Citrulline can also reduce arterial stiffness, according to a study published in the International Journal of Cardiology. With age, arteries lose elasticity; increasing risk for heart disease, stroke, dementia, and death. This is due to the fact that citrulline aids in nitric oxide production by dilating blood vessels. For this reason, many fitness enthusiasts take citrulline in their pre-workout drink for better circulation and that “pumped up” look and feel while lifting weights.
Taurine is an amino sulfonic acid found in dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
“An amino acid that our body is able to create, taurine plays a role in hydration status and electrolyte balance,” says L’Heureux . “Some studies suggest that it may help performance through increasing endurance or increasing fat burn during exercise.”
A few small studies have found performance benefits with taurine. Brazilian researchers found that taurine increased strength and decreased muscle soreness after 14 days of supplementation and weight training compared to a placebo. You’ll rarely find a pre-workout drink with just taurine, as it’s often paired with caffeine or stimulants. More research is warranted to determine if taurine works better alone or in combination with other products. Taurine is generally regarded as safe in recommended doses but probably won’t make or break your workout performance.
You know that tingly feeling you get in your face and/or extremities when you take certain pre-workouts? That’s harmless tingling from a natural chemical called beta-alanine.
“Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that is common in meat, fish, and poultry, says L’Heureux . “It works within the body to reduce the acidity created in our muscles during exercise, helping to lessen fatigue.”
Beta-alanine increases levels of muscle carnosine, which is a natural chemical we produce during high intensity exercise like HIIT training and heavy weightlifting. Hydrogen ion (H+) levels also increase coupled by a decrease in muscle pH during intense workouts. Certain supplements and extended training cycles may increase the body’s ability to “buffer” or regulate the high levels of H+ and pH during intense exercise. Beta-alanine is one of those supplements. Theoretically, increasing skeletal muscle carnosine levels through chronic training or beta- alanine supplementation (or both) would improve muscle buffering capability and most likely improve anaerobic (short burst) performance, according to NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.
Beet Root Extract
An increasingly popular endurance supplements, beet root extract in the form of pills, powder, or liquid can be found in several pre-workout products. Or, some athletes take it alone before training. Beets are fibrous vegetables that get their reddish color from pigments called betalains. Although they’re packed with potassium and fiber, beets are known for being high in nitrate (one nitrogen, three oxygen atoms). Once ingested, the nitrate in beets get reduced to nitrite in our mouths (one nitrogen, two oxygen atoms). The nitrite gets reduced to nitric oxide (NO) in our stomachs, which is then released into the bloodstream. NO has been shown to improve cardiorespiratory performance and improve circulation/blood flow.
The most recent review of beets and endurance performance is in Nutrients where the takeaway is that acute and chronic supplementation can benefit performance by allowing athletes to last longer during endurance sports.
“There are not enough long term studies for me to feel comfortable giving an opinion on beet root either way, or to feel confident in providing dosage that I could stand behind,” says L’Heureux. “That being said, BeetElite has done a great amount of work to create a quality product, and the serving size recommendations they provide on their packaging has been trialed on numerous athletes. Consumers should have confidence in this and also try it out for themselves.”
The next wave of pre-workouts include supposed brain boosting chemicals aka “nootropics” like Lion’s Mane, Alpha GPC, and Teacrine. Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) looks very different than your typical shiitake or reishi mushroom. Lion’s mane is made of several white strands rather than a smooth cap and stem. Lion’s mane has been studied to help improve cognitive function. The mechanism is the ability to repair and regenerate neurons. Our bodies contain nerve growth factors (NGF), proteins that protect neurons (the basic working cell of the brain) and stimulate new neuron growth. Researchers think lion’s mane stimulates the synthesis of NGF.
There’s not enough research on this ingredient to know if it improves athletic performance but the idea is that it may help you focus more during workouts. This could be useful for skills like cleans, snatches, or even during yoga.
It goes without saying that we need protein to build muscle. The intention of a pre-workout isn’t to get toned or burn fat per say, rather it’s to get you in the mindset to work out in the first place. Pre-workout drinks are a slippery slope: They may help you get in the zone but eventually you can become mentally dependent on them. A good strategy may be to have one pre-workout drink without any stimulants/caffeine and other one with caffeine. Then, only use the caffeinated pre-workout on days you don’t drink any other caffeine. Otherwise, you can might bring residual “pre-workout hype” back home with you, which can alter your conversations and sleep patterns.
Caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, citrulline, and, to a lesser extent, beet root powder are all relatively basic pre-workout ingredients that have some research behind them for improving athletic performance. This article lists out just a few pre-workout ingredients as there are dozens of other compounds being developed and studied. It’s key to do your own research and if trying a new product, use ¼ to ½ of the suggested dose to gauge your tolerance.
“Supplements can be a great addition to an athletes plan, but we need to remember that supplements are just that, they are supplements meant to supplement the overall healthy intake from day to day,” says L’Heureux. “If you find yourself looking for a supplement because your performance has reached a plateau or you are not getting the results you want, you will first want to evaluate overall nutrition, sleep, recovery, and stress.”