How and when to take pre-workout, plus its benefits, risks, and insights from experts
Curious about pre-workouts? Read on to find out everything you need to know about pre-workout supplements, including expert advice on how and when to consume them for maximum benefit.
Before going to the gym or smashing out a workout, the priority amongst most athletes is to have the right amount of energy. Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, feeling primed before starting to exercise needs a mixture of rest, recovery, and eating.
But, despite best efforts, these don’t always work. We’ve all found ourselves preparing properly but still lacking the motivation to exercise or feeling tired just before we start – that’s where pre-workout comes in. Pre-workout is used to boost energy and enhance performance while also allowing you to exercise for longer and harder.
It might sound too good to be true, so here at The Recommended, we’ve compiled a guide for those of you who aren’t already well-versed in the benefits of pre-workout. We explain how to use it, how to take it safely, the risks, and if it’s right for you.
What is pre-workout?
Pre-workout is a supplement that you take before exercising to increase performance. It is helpful in raising energy levels, endurance, and focus. It often comes as a powder that you mix with water and drink.
There are many variations of pre-workout, and there is no set ingredient list, but the supplement usually includes two to four of the following performance-enhancing ingredients: caffeine, creatine, nitric oxide boosters, and beta-alanine.
A staple of nearly all pre-workouts, caffeine is used to increase energy levels, improve mental focus, and make it easier to power through a tough workout. Harvard University researchers also found that caffeine helps to promote fat burning during exercise, making it popular for those looking to lose weight. However, high levels of caffeine can be dangerous, so it’s important to regulate how much you’re taking.
Also found in many pre-workouts, creatine is stored in the muscles already and helps us produce energy during exercise. Health and performance expert Professor Rick Sharp explains that eating/drinking creatine before you work out can improve strength and power output, meaning you can lift heavier weights. Over time, creatine has been shown to increase muscle mass whilst also increasing water retention in your muscles. Again, creatine should be taken in moderation as it can have negative side effects if taken in excess.
Expert in biochemistry, Dr Hiroki Abe, explains that this amino acid (beta-alanine) has been shown to enhance muscular endurance and works particularly well during high-intensity exercise. Beta-alanine helps produce carnosine, a building block for muscle in the body. Taking beta-alanine can help make your muscles stronger in the short term so you can exercise with more intensity.
Nitric oxide boosters
Many pre-workouts contain nitric oxide boosters, which are compounds that are meant to increase nitric oxide production and oxygen flow. Consumption of these means that, theoretically, athletes should see an increase in oxygen delivered to the muscles resulting in improved endurance and delayed feelings of tiredness during exercise.
Common nitric oxide boosters found in pre-workouts include arginine, citrulline, and beetroot extract. However, research is mixed regarding their effectiveness, and as nitric oxide is a gas, you aren’t actually consuming it but providing the building blocks to boost its production in the body.
Benefits of pre-workout supplements
Fitness enthusiasts have driven the increased popularity of pre-workout, and many swear by the supplements. The most common benefits that come from pre-workout are increased energy levels, focus, improved endurance, and increased muscle and strength. People who are taking pre-workout have even reported feelings of euphoria and increased drive.
We’ve provided some of the main benefits of the exercise enhancer, but it’s important to keep in mind that the benefits can vary depending on the specific supplement you’re taking and your individual body chemistry.
Increased energy and focus
One of the main reasons people take pre-workout is the boost to energy levels and focus. These benefits come as a result of the stimulants in pre-workout, e.g. caffeine. A Harvard University study found that mental focus was improved after consuming caffeine, as were energy levels. This energy boost can help you maintain proper form whilst working out, meaning you reduce the risk of injury.
Improved endurance and performance
Pre-workouts give you more energy so you can push yourself harder and longer than you would otherwise be able to. Many pre-workouts contain beta-alanine, and these have been proven to improve endurance. Overall athletic performance has also been said to improve as these compounds help to stave off feelings of fatigue. By training harder and longer, you can improve performance more quickly than you would without pre-workout.
Increased muscle growth and strength
Medical researchers from the National Taiwan University found that the presence of ingredients like creatine in pre-workouts can help increase muscle growth and strength. By taking a pre-workout supplement, you could see your fitness goals achieved faster than they would without it. High energy levels also add to your muscle and strength levels because you tire less easily and can work on building strength for a longer period of time.
Risks of pre-workout supplements
Pre-workouts, if used correctly, can be used to maximize training and help you achieve your goals more quickly. But, before trying pre-workout, it’s important to be aware of the risks. It’s vital to not overdo your pre-workout consumption and check before you take it or you could suffer a caffeine overdose, allergic reaction, or negative interactions with other supplements/medications.
Many pre-workouts contain high levels of caffeine, so make sure to only stick to the recommended serving size and frequency. Cardiology expert Dr Ana Andrade researched caffeine overdoses and said that if you have too much caffeine, you could suffer heart palpitations, anxiety, and restlessness. In extreme cases, caffeine overdose can even be life-threatening. It’s important to carefully read the label of any pre-workout supplement you’re considering using and to be mindful of your caffeine intake from other sources as well.
Another potential risk is allergic reactions. Symptoms of allergic reactions are uncomfortable and sometimes life-threatening. If you find yourself with hives, swelling, or difficulty breathing after taking pre-workout, then speak to a doctor. Attend the hospital if you think it’s serious. Before drinking pre-workout, make sure to read the labels for allergens.
Negative interactions with other supplements or medications
Pre-workouts can negatively interact with other medications or supplements you are taking. Harmful side effects can come from mixing pre-workout with blood pressure medication or anti-depressants, for example. Make sure if you’re already taking medication to ask your doctor before starting pre-workout and do the same if a new medication is offered to you.
If you already suffer from health issues, you should be extra careful about taking pre-workout. Pregnant women or those with heart conditions should check with their doctor as high caffeine can have negative effects on them and their baby’s health. Other groups, such as children, older people, and those with mental health problems, should also think twice.
How and when to take pre-workout supplements
When taking a pre-workout, you can increase its effectiveness by knowing when and how to consume it. Using the supplement responsibly means you can boost your workouts and take your fitness goals to the next level. We’ve gathered some top tips for taking pre-workout, including timing, dosage, and drinking.
It is recommended that you take pre-workout 30-45 minutes before your workout. Timing is important because you want all of the supplements to be absorbed into your body just before the planned workout time. Sleep expert and neuroscientist Matthew Walker said caffeine and other stimulants might interfere with your sleep, so it’s not a good idea to take pre-workout in the hours leading up to bedtime.
One of the most important factors of pre-workout taking is dosage. Whenever you are trying a new pre-workout, you should read the label carefully and always follow the recommended guidelines. Exceeding the amount it advises you to take, or taking it too frequently, can increase the likelihood of negative side effects.
Similarly, not taking the correct amount of pre-workout might mean you are not provided with the full benefits of the supplement. It’s also important to avoid taking multiple pre-workout supplements at once, as this can increase your risk of caffeine overdose and other negative side effects.
Most pre-workout supplements come as a powder that you then mix with water to digest as a liquid. When taking the supplement this way, you should make sure that the liquid is mixed well, you could use a protein shaker to distribute the powder evenly.
Want more guidance on fitness and wellness? Check out our wellness and fitness sections, with guides including how to create a morning routine to boost your mood, best posture tips and tackling tiredness.