I remember the first time I became aware of pre-workout.
It was shortly after I started my career as a fitness trainer and I was meeting an old high school friend for a long-overdue catch-up. When I mentioned that I was working in fitness he launched into a chronicle detailing his morning fitness routine and raving about how much he loved his pre-workout shake. Curious, and eager to flex my recently earned nutrition-savvy muscles, I asked him what the ingredients were. He said something to the effect of, “Oh I don’t know, a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce. But it makes me feel like an animal!”
Beware of Non-Natural Ingredients
I asked him to send me a photo of the ingredient list and a few days later received a picture of a label that included the following:
Citruline Malate, Caffeine Anhydrous, Beta Anhydrous, Creatine Nitrate, Arginine Alpha Ketoglutarate, Malic Acid, Natural Flavors (which is code word for, “anything we want”), Silicon Dioxide, Sucralose, and Vitamin C supplement, to name a few.
Admittedly I wasn’t immediately familiar with half of the ingredients but even the ones I could recognize weren’t great.
Sucralose = A bad sugar. Silicon Dioxide = An “anti-caking agent” that’s added to food so it doesn’t clump. It’s not a form of food or even derived from food, so thanks but no thanks I definitely won’t be drinking or eating that. Oh, and the vitamin C component was an artificial supplement made from cornstarch and broken down with acetone. Yes, the active ingredient used in nail polish remover! Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned oranges? This list of questionable and outright bad ingredients went on, and I could stay on my soapbox for just as long, but you get the picture…..
So what, then, is in a healthy pre-workout supplement?
The easiest way to hone in on the safe options is to search for an all-natural or, ideally, organic pre-workout. These options use a mix of real food ingredients and ancient herbs, which incidentally have been highly studied for efficacy with proven results. One of my favorites is Eleuthero, an adaptogen, that has been successfully tested in over 3000 studies across eight countries. As with anything, if you see an ingredient you don’t recognize, do not hesitate to look it up. Often times one herb will have a few different names, which can admittedly be confusing.
Once you’ve confirmed the ingredients are all from real plants, look for ingredients that make up these three key components. You want a pre-workout containing ingredients for Stress Adaptation and Mental Focus, Energy and Electrolytes, and Nitric Oxide.
Stress Adaptation and Focus
Some natural pre-workout products on the market might contain antioxidant ingredients in lieu of adaptogens because antioxidants fight free radicals. The theory here is that these antioxidants will help reduce the stress load on the body so there is less stress to ultimately manage; antioxidants don’t, however, actually support the body’s natural stress-management physiology. Ingredients high in antioxidants are also easier to acquire and less expensive than their adaptogenic counterparts.
Personally, I want the thoroughbred running the race for me, not the pony and will be spending my money on the adaptogenic blend. Or, better yet, find a pre-workout that has both antioxidants AND adaptogen ingredients! Because, why not? (Berry flavors can be a good indicator for the presence of antioxidants as most berries are naturally high in these free-radical-fighting substances; that’s assuming real fruit is used in the flavoring.)
Energy and Electrolytes
For energy, look for a mix of different caffeine sources such as coffee bean or green coffee bean, green tea, matcha, yerba mate or guayusa. Different caffeine sources vary in their half-life. Coffee beans, for example, provide a quick burst of energy and die off just as quickly. Teas, conversely, are slow to start and have a more mellow, sustained drive. It’s important to find something with a mix of caffeine types in order to achieve consistent energy and avoid crashes and jitters.
Additionally, look for a product that contains a source of electrolytes and source of glucose. It’s usually a combo of coconut water powder or coconut palm sugar for electrolytes and a syrup of some sort for natural glucose. Examples include rice syrup and corn syrup, or, for something more paleo-friendly, there is tapioca syrup.
Increased nitric oxide (a gas) in the body during a workout is theorized to widen the blood vessels and improve blood flow to the muscles. Increased blood flow contributes to improved strength and performance during physical activity due to faster nutrient delivery times and elevated protein turnover. Nitric oxide is synthesized in the body from nitrates, which are naturally contained in many fruits and vegetables including kale, spinach, apples, and beets.
What sets a pre workout apart.
In my opinion, adaptogens are the secret weapon in all natural and organic pre workouts. They help balance your hormone levels (ladies especially, pay attention!) by strengthening the body’s response to stress. They also enhance stamina and the body’s ability to fight fatigue and cope with anxiety. The most popular and effective adaptogenic herbs include ashwaganda, rhodiola, eleuthero, maca, ginseng, and cordycep mushrooms. Ashwaganda is great for lowering cortisol levels, easing anxiety, and generally fortifying the immune system. Cordycep mushrooms are also amazing for strengthening the immune system. Rhodiola, known as the “golden root”, and maca are revered for their brain and energy enhancing capabilities, while eleuthero is said to increase endurance.
Curious about when to take your pre workout and why you should drink pre workout instead of coffee? Check this link out.