Oct 17, 2023
Why pre-workout may not be the answer
Hannah Champine, MDN, RDN, Gatorade SNIP Fellow at University of Michigan

Picture this. You are a part of the performance team for a sport and it is mid-season. An athlete shows up to practice. Something looks off. They are lacking their usual energy, speed, power, and focus. Coaches are concerned, and as a member of the performance team, they are asking you what might be going on.

Before responding, you give the situation more thought. It might be that the athlete is under-fueled for this specific training session. Additionally, it could be a result of poor recovery, lack of sleep, dehydration, outside stressors, acute sickness, or another medical complication. 

pre-workoutThere are a variety of possibilities to consider in getting to the root cause of this situation. 

As a sports dietitian, I decided to tell the coaches that there are many potential causes for this concerning performance, so the best thing to do next would be to ask the athlete to start by taking me through what they have had to eat and drink that day and for the days leading up to today. 

Beyond the capability to assess the dietary recall of an athlete, a sports dietitian is capable of bringing value to the performance team through expertise in a myriad of other areas that might help in assessing complex issues. 

Once the probable cause for this specific athlete is able to be identified, the next step would be to treat the athlete accordingly. Depending on your role on the performance team, this may include refueling, education on proper fueling habits, increasing knowledge on the importance of recovery and sleep, talking through the impact of stress, coordinating referrals outside your scope of practice, or other multidisciplinary interventions.

Notice that throughout this entire process, a pre-workout supplement or a caffeine-containing energy drink is not considered a recommendation. Whether it’s in a powder form or a ready-to-drink can, it may likely be the first option on the athlete’s mind for that extra pre-workout push. 

Athletes may be intrigued by the trendy product marketing, their favorite social media influencers’ promotion of the product, or maybe a role model athlete using their compensated sponsorship agreement to advocate for and/or use this product. We live in a world with quick and easy access to information. That can be both a blessing and a curse. While the importance of practicality shouldn’t be overlooked, it is important to not forget to bring it back to science. 

What does research have to say about pre-workout supplementation? Let’s first start with differentiating caffeine and pre-workout. Caffeine is consumed by about 90% of the population, often coming from coffee, tea, and in more recent years, energy drinks and/or pre-workout supplements. The majority of pre-workout products contain caffeine of some form, however, not all forms of caffeine are considered pre-workout. Research regarding caffeine supplementation related to exercise has been widely studied. Studies have shown that caffeine usage 60 minutes prior to activity may enhance areas of athletic performance. The amount can vary from 3-6 mg/kg body weight if tolerated. The exact benefits of caffeine supplementation may vary depending on sport, but caffeine has been known to improve activity in aerobic activities and short, high-intensity bouts of exercise. 

So, if an athlete wants to have a cup of coffee an hour before exercise or performance, I support this decision (assuming tolerance is high and no adverse side effects ensue)! However, as with most things, moderation is important as more is not necessarily always better. This can lead to high levels of caffeine consumption, which could show up in a drug test. According to the NCAA, if 400-600 mg of caffeine is consumed within 3-4 hours of a drug test, it could result in a positive test for stimulants. It is also important to recognize that individuals may consume a variety of those sources of caffeine in a small window of time, thus increasing the likelihood of a test that comes back positive. Therefore, while it is clearly important to pay attention to not only what the athlete consumes, both the timing and the amount need to be taken into consideration as well.

As a registered dietitian, if an athlete presents the idea of trying to consume a pre-workout supplement, I am going to take a step back and look a little further before supporting that decision or seeking an alternative option. There are endless pre-workout products on the market. The most important professional consideration to look at is what is found within these powders and drinks. Each product has a different combination of ingredients, but most pre-workout powder supplements contain a combination of beta-alanine, caffeine, BCAAs (branch chain amino acids), creatine, citrulline malate, electrolytes, protein, taurine, and vitamin B12. Popular energy drinks such as Celsius, which claim can aid in fat loss, contain proprietary blends consisting of taurine, caffeine, guarana seed extract, ginger root, glucuronolactone, and green tea leaf extracts. Often, products will list “proprietary blends” on the label, meaning that the exact amounts of ingredients are not listed. Because of this, it is impossible to identify causation between ingredients in the product and the benefits as well as side effects it has on performance. This also makes it difficult to determine if a product is compliant with the rules of the athlete’s sports governing drug testing organization such as the NCAA or the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It is also important to note that supplements are not well regulated, therefore the label may not be accurate as to what ingredients are in the supplement. Because of this, it is important that athletes choose supplements that are third-party tested by a company such as NSF to ensure the product contents and label are the same. 

The current research on pre-workout supplements is mixed, but the claim that these supplements improve athletic performance and body composition is limited and difficult to attribute to a single ingredient. There are also qualitative studies out there regarding side effects of pre-workout products. Examples of this include lightheadedness, nausea, gastrointestinal distress, skin irritation, and heart abnormalities.

According to the research, the bottom line is caffeine supplementation one hour prior to activity may improve endurance performance and focus, but pre-workout products may not promise the same effect or level of safety. In terms of supporting athletes and the health of the general population, pre-workout may not be the answer. 

To be most prepared for peak athletic performance, emphasize optimal fueling with balanced nutrition and hydration, adequate recovery and sleep, and caffeine one hour before activity. Next time you see an athlete you work with mention a trendy new pre-workout product on the market, consider these factors and save the money and the potential risk.

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