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What is a pre-workout supplement?
While there are hundreds of brands and types of products intended to be consumed before a workout, it turns out most of them share the same basic ingredients intended to benefit energy, endurance, or results. “Pre-workout supplements often contain ingredients like amino acids, vitamin B, caffeine, and creatine,” explained Dr. Eva Gamallo RMT, MD, a medical consultant for Sensible Digs. In summary, the purpose is to maximize the time you spend at the gym by increasing benefits and results. “Pre-workouts are a combination of biochemically active products designed to improve energy, focus, blood flow, and energy to muscles and enhance recovery potential,” explained Dr. Shaffer Mok MD, a gastroenterologist and medical adviser to Sovereign Laboratories. Many people take them purely for energy (especially early-morning gym-goers), while weight-lifters and marathon-trainers take them to speed progress. So can a powder or liquid shot really help us reach our fitness goals?
Does taking a supplement before a workout really make a difference?
The short answer: maybe, maybe not. While there are many studies that conclude that individual ingredients commonly used in pre-workout supplements might increase performance (for example, caffeine has been shown to potentially increase speed and power output), there’s not enough research on the supplements themselves, so athletes, trainers, and doctors are left to their own personal experience and research. “There is still limited data on how these common ingredients may benefit athletic performance, so there’s an ongoing debate among experts (about) whether or not they actually make a difference. Some advocates swear they improve energy and have fitness benefits, while others believe in dangerous effects of taking these supplements,” Dr. Gamallo explained.
What are the potential harms?
If I haven’t already stated this enough, here’s a quick reminder: With any vitamin or supplement, it’s important to do your own research and talk to your doctor before trying for yourself. Here’s the reason why: Many experts I spoke to believe many of these products could have potentially harmful ingredients. “These dietary supplements are not always closely regulated, and many contain artificial sweeteners,” Dr. Gamallo said. Dr. Mok agreed, pointing out that even if a product doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners, an unnatural or excessive dose of common “good” ingredients can have a negative effect. “Be wary of high doses of caffeine in unnatural sources, as it can significantly alter your sleep (at any time of day), which is the most critical part of any exercise regimen.”
Plus, pre-workout supplements were intended for major athletes or serious marathon runners. Not to undermine your workouts (trust me, a hot yoga class or HIIT session is tough as hell), but if you’re not routinely pushing your body to the point of exhaustion or working out for a couple of hours every day, you probably don’t need a pre-workout supplement and may not even notice a difference, since a healthy body should give you all the endurance and energy it needs for a standard workout sesh. “If you’re a recreational exerciser and are just working out to stay in shape, you probably don’t need a pre-workout,” said Ashlee Van Buskirk BSN, a personal trainer, health coach, and founder of Whole Intent.
Some experts I talked to add a scoop of powder (like Vital Proteins) to their water before a workout and feel a difference in energy levels, endurance, or speed, but most declared pre-workout supplements are unnecessary at best and harmful at worst. To determine what’s right for you, talk to your doctor and experiment to find what’s best for you. “A lot of training is psychological,” said Jake Harcoff MS, CSCS, TSAC-f, CISSN, head coach, and owner of AIM Athletic. “If pre-workout use helps you get in the gym more consistently, feels good for you, and is something you’ve discussed with your doctor, it might be worth sticking with.”
The point that I believe is most important is that a healthy body shouldn’t really need a pre-workout supplement. If you’re lacking energy or feel like you can’t challenge yourself during workouts, a supplement is not the answer. “The key is understanding your body,” said Serena Poon, a celebrity nutritionist and wellness entrepreneur. “A lack of energy during workouts could be caused by an array of factors and may not be something that can be fixed with supplements.” In other words, if your workouts are lacking, look into your overall diet, sleep quality, vitamin levels, gut health, recovery days, and stress levels before opting for a pre-workout supplement.
Still swear by your pre-workout mix or dying to try the new supplement your favorite fitness influencer posted about? You know what to do: Talk to your doctor. Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy, a primary care doctor at Doctor Spring, explained that he doesn’t personally recommend pre-workout supplements to patients, but if a patient wants to try a product, they’ll take a look at the ingredients together to decide if its right. “I explain each ingredient and the possible implications, and then let them decide on their own if they want to continue using it (with precaution, of course).”
More options to boost your workout beforehand
While experts disagree on pre-workout supplements and not enough research has been done to either fully support or discourage them, there is something every expert can agree on: the benefits of real, whole foods. “In my opinion, the best way to attain the benefits of pre-workout supplements is by eating a nutritious and balanced diet with the same active ingredients found in supplements.” Dr. Gamallo said. Try pregaming workouts with whole foods that contain the same ingredients supplements offer, like coffee and tea, which contain caffeine to increase energy and alertness during exercise, or watermelon, which contains L-citrulline, an amino acid commonly used in pre-workout supplements that increases blood flow in tissues for better muscle performance.