Breaking Up With Your Preworkout

Carla Rae Nowicki, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS

Should you be in a relationship with your pre-workout?

        You and your pre-workout have been through it all. It was there for you during those grueling sled drags you thought would never end, pulled you out the bottom of that one rep max you thought you weren’t going to hit, and celebrated with you on that aerobic capacity session that you crushed last week. Or did it really do any of that? There is certainly a large amount of placebo effect when it comes to pre-workouts. Your Pre-workout may not be doing anything for you or may even be holding you back. One of the most challenging topics I have with a client’s supplement routine is their sometimes toxic relationship with their pre-workout. The problems with almost every pre-workout on the market are

  • They overdose on particular ingredients, particularly caffeine and certain amino acids

  • They underdose on particular ingredients and don’t get the potential or anything out of, particularly creatine, beta-alanine, or vasodilators

  • Some of the ingredients perform better as a daily supplement and should be taken more than just the days you workout

  • They are usually filled to the brim with unnecessary fillers, non-useful ingredients that sound magical, artificial dyes, and sweeteners.

  • There are ingredients that may be helpful for some workouts, individuals, or training styles, but useless in others.

  • Create dependency to need more and more of a substance that an eventually lead to harmful levels

        The main reason to take a pre-workout is simply to get more out of your workout and feel better when doing it. There shouldn’t ever be a supplement or ingredient that you take that you don’t know what it does for you or if it is effective. This list is a combination of ingredients that you MIGHT want in your pre-workout concoction and the amounts.

Creatine- The father of all sports supplements. It gets a terrible name, but there are very few people that wouldn’t benefit from taking it. I would probably even suggest your grandmother take it (seriously… it could help her keep strength to avoid extended stays at rehab centers after a fall). It is very safe and does not need to be cycled on and off from. Creatine provides the ability for your body to restore creatine phosphate in your muscles so that you can repeatedly have 5-12 second maximal, or close to maximal outputs. This helps your strength training days, sprints, and even on a run when you encounter a hill or sprint to the end. It has the potential to reduce risk of concussions, and even theorized to reduce the risk of heat stroke. In the most common form, taking 5-8g daily will be perfect. I usually suggest this as a daily supplement in the morning with your coffee. It is more important to not to forget to take it daily than the exact time at which you take it during the day.

Buffers (Beta-Alanine & Sodium Bicarbonate) - The speed demons. These supplement helps your anaerobic glycolytic system. In different ways, these two supplements help to buffer the acidity of your blood that builds when you are pushing your body towards its lactic threshold. They do not make hard work feel easier, they simply let you push a little harder. The work capacities that have the biggest benefit are activities that require you to push hard for 1-7 minutes. A great example of this are an 800m to mile run, or a short, intense interval work capacity. Beta-alanine is the ingredient that makes your skin and fingers tingle (not caffeine). Beta-alanine should be taken at a dose of 3-5g daily to see the benefit, and don’t worry; the tingles will lessen over time. Again, it is more important that it is taken daily, and less about time. Sodium bicarbonate dosage is a little more tricky because it can cause some really unpleasant and embarrassing gastrointestinal issues, but is usually dosed at 45-68mg/lb of body weight within the hour prior to your workout.

Electrolytes- The sweat monsters. When you train, your body is going through a lot of work to maintain your homeostasis of cellular hydration and temperature regulation. Electrolytes are going everywhere, especially out of you on to your skin as you sweat. Sadly, you can just soak it back in once it’s out. It needs to be replaced, but also can be a preventative measure if you take them before. Overall, your body has a pretty high balance of most of these. The main one that you will likely benefit from is plain ol’ salt. Adding ¼- ½ tsp of salt into your pre-training water can help you sweat your heart out and keep safe during your session.

Vasodilators (Citrulline malate, Arginine, Beet Root)- The muscle pump. The purpose of vasodilators is to help bring fresh oxygen to your muscles, and exchange waste to be brought through the system. Most people think of these guys for bodybuilding and heavy weight training, but another primarily reason to take it is for your long treks or days that you just have to keep going. I usually suggest making sure this supplement gets taken especially on game day, knowing that you have tried them before and know how your body reacts. Citrulline malate dosage is about 3g, Arginine dosage about 6g (but is still up in the air if oral ingestion helps), and Beet Root powder is useful in 200-700mg.

Caffeine- The energizer bunny. Caffeine prior to your workout can increase your mood during your workout. A good feeling workout can many times help you push a little harder. Caffeine is also a very fickle beast. A recent research publication shed light that caffeine effects on increased aerobic performance is altered by your genetics. This theorizes that some individuals will likely have great improvements, some no effect, and some a decreased performance, all depending on genotype. I also have some rough news for my heavy coffee drinkers. Habitual caffeine consumers have less of an effect. Too much daily caffeine can put a large toll on your body, causing adrenal fatigue and inability to repair. Caffeine can potentially be effective at 150-350mg depending on size. I do not usually suggest over that to avoid adrenal fatigue.

Carbohydrates- Trying to make your pre-workout low carb/low sugar isn’t really helping you out. Most of the time your best pre-workout carbs can just come from foods in the form of a good pre-workout snack, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Carbs useful for getting your fuel tank to the top and pumping up your muscles with nutrients that can be used for workouts. Normal recommendations are to support the 20-50g of carbohydrates you burn an hour, utilizing intra-training carbs when needed for extended sessions.

        There are somethings that you are probably wondering why they were left out. This is because there isn’t enough to support that there is potential that they work, or they have been shown to have no real effect, or they have a high potential to create damage to your body. Two that particularly come to mind that are purposefully left out are BCAAs and ATP. BCAAs have been shown to have no benefit, especially when properly fueled prior to a workout. They have shown no true aid to recovery over just good food. I usually only suggest them during competition preparation for weight class athletes. Oral ATP also has had very little suggesting that it can be beneficial, and what is floating around was not quality research.

        The other culprit to leave out of your workout- all the other crap. Artificial dyes, sweeteners and other chemical fillers can cause harm to your body, affect your food choices, and effect your hormone balance. As good as “Blue Razzle-Dazzle” tastes, it’s not worth it.

        There are some up and coming other pre-workout supplements that are emerging that have great potential. Key minerals, adaptogen mushrooms, and cognitive support

        Overall, investigate potential pure product instead of looking for your perfect pre-workout. Skip the supplement shop walls and prices and aim for quality ingredients of what is going to help YOUR workout. It will also save you some dollar signs. Avoid useless/harmful ingredients or anything you don’t know what it is. Most importantly, the effort and consistency that you put into your training will ALWAYS override any supplement routine.