Author: Raj Chander • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • June 9, 2021
Preworkout shakes and drinks serve an important role for those who want to maximize their workouts and get the most out of time spent in the gym or on the field. By priming your body for physical activity, you can improve performance and intensity, which can lead to more calories burned and greater muscle gains during training. Preworkout drinks are also great for those who need to have the energy to complete a workout when their energy isn’t naturally the highest, such as after or before a busy work day.
Timing your pre-workout supplement intake requires a bit of trial and error, but the short answer is anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes before activity is a good window in which to have your preworkout. This post will discuss the different types of preworkout supplements available, their ingredients, and how to choose the right one based on the kind of activities you’ll be performing.
The most common form of preworkout supplement comes in a powder that is mixed into liquid, usually water. You can also find pre-packaged preworkout drinks, or edible kinds in the form of a bar or gummy – but these are less common than the typical powder mix.
The main function of a preworkout supplement is to give you an energy boost for your workout, so many ingredients are associated with improvements in energy. As you might have guessed, caffeine is a staple of many different pre-workout drinks. Other common ingredients include:
Creatine - an amino acid acid that is often sold as a supplement on its own, it's believed to help improve muscle endurance and performance.
Guarana - a natural compound derived from a South American plant. Guarana seeds contain caffeine themselves, but research also indicates that guarana may be complementary to caffeine when consumed together, heightening its effect as a stimulant.
Beta-alanine - while beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid – meaning it is produced naturally in the body – research by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition has shown beta-alanine can remove the body's inhibition on the production of carnosine, another compound thought to be associated with improved muscle recovery and performance. A supplementary dose may help support training at a higher intensity for longer.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Besides beta-alanine, other branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are also common in preworkout formulas. These amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Valine, isoleucine and leucine are the three essential amino acids that comprise between 20% and 35% of your muscle tissue. BCAAs may help improve endurance and strength during workouts, as well as reduce post-workout soreness.
There are many other nutrients and supplements found in preworkout drinks – this is just a sampling. Ingredients are important to know because they help you determine your own ideal pre-workout timing and better understand how different ingredients provide benefits for different types of fitness goals – both factors will help you get the most out of your workout routine. Remember, response to these different ingredients varies by individual. For example, many people have different reactions to common ingredients like caffeine and beta alanine. Some people may need to drink a caffeine-free preworkout with higher levels of beta alanine, while others may be in the opposite scenario.
Timing also matters. If you take your preworkout too close to your workout, it might feel heavy in your stomach while you are exercising and likely won't have a chance to fully kick in by the time you start. Also, if your mix has stimulants like caffeine, you may also experience negative side effects – like jitters or restlessness – for some time after working out.
On the other hand, if you take your preworkout too early, the effects might wear off while you're still at the gym or competition. This could lead to a situation where a "crash" starts to make you feel fatigue when you still need to have energy to perform.
For these reasons, it's best to experiment with different timings for different formulas. You'll also want to consider the type of exercise or activity you'll be participating in.
A pre-workout supplement can be used in many different fitness scenarios, so you'll want to choose your mix and time the dose based on what you'll be doing.
For example, if you are going to be engaging in a strength training workout with the goal of adding lean body mass, you may want to opt for a preworkout that contains ingredients associated with muscle growth acceleration, such as whey protein powder or the L-arginine amino acid. In this situation, you may want to drink a pre-workout beverage well in advance of the time when you plan to hit the gym, since training sessions focused on adding muscle mass by initiating muscle protein synthesis don't tend to last much longer than 60 minutes.
Some people may think they don’t workout hard enough to need a preworkout. But you don’t need to be a professional athlete or bodybuilder to want to get the most out of your workout. The pre-workout window is a great chance to fine tune your nutrition.
Timing becomes even more important if you're engaging in high-intensity exercise over a short period of time, such as HIIT cardio or tabata. Some of these workouts can be as short as 20 minutes, so unless you are very experienced with a certain mix and know how long it will take to kick in, you'll want to pay close attention to timing your preworkout before these brief sessions. If you have the flexibility, starting your workout even just ten or fifteen minutes earlier or later can have a big difference on the way you feel during exercise.
The final thing to consider when determining your pre-workout timing is your specific fitness goals and the nutrition plan you have in place to achieve them.
Two of the most common (but not the only) reasons people pursue a regular exercise routine are to shed body fat and build muscle mass. The former is achieved through a caloric deficit, while the latter is achieved through strength training that causes small-scale muscle damage which eventually gets repaired by increased blood flow, causing the muscle to increase in size.
No matter your goal, you still have to be conscious of nutrition. This means thinking about the ingredients in your pre-workout drink, from considering how many milligrams (mg) of sugar it contains to looking at the total number of calories. Here are a couple guidelines to help fit your pre-workout into your nutritional plan:
Macronutrient content. Look at the quantity of fats, carbohydrates and proteins found in your preworkout. Most of them will skew more towards carbs and protein, but you may find all three in different kinds of products. Be sure they fit into your daily targets for macronutrients.
Artificially-derived flavors. Many brands are beginning to recognize the importance of making products without artificial ingredients or flavors. Some of these artificial dyes, colorings and sweeteners are approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) but can still cause negative side effects like headaches, nausea and bloating.
Caffeine content. Caffeine can be a valuable ingredient for focus and energy, but too much of it can provide negative side effects like jitters and anxiety. A typical cup of coffee contains anywhere from 80 to 100 mg of caffeine, but energy drinks can have anywhere from 50 mg to 300 mg. L-theanine taken with caffeine before a workout can help counter jitters that some people experience from caffeine and may also increase focus.
The preworkout window is an opportunity to prime your body to be more ready to do the work required to meet your goals. It's an opportunity often missed by busy people squeezing in workouts between other commitments.
When used properly, a preworkout mix can be beneficial for reaching many different types of goals such as muscle building, resistance work, endurance, stamina, and weight management. However, some degree of trial and error will be needed to find the exact preworkout formulation that works for you. Typically, it's best to take a pre-workout drink between 20 and 60 minutes before activity. By experimenting with both the timing and ingredients of your preworkout, you can find one that aligns with your personal approach to fitness.
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