Firstly, what is a pre-workout supplement?
It’s a powder, pill or processed snack (usually some kind of bar) that you take shortly before you exercise. “There are hundreds of pre-workout supplements out there, and they all tend to consist of caffeine, plus a concoction of other ingredients such as beta alanine, creatine and BCAAs,” says Harry Grosvenor, PT and head coach at Virgin Active. He explains they’re designed to increase performance during anaerobic exercise (like strength training) or endurance exercise (like cardio) by providing an energy boost and delaying fatigue.
So they can help if you’re trying to hit a PB?
The jury’s out, says Harry. “The first thing to remember with supplementation is that they’re there to ‘supplement’, i.e. to add to a healthy, well-balanced diet. When considering them, it’s important to remember the relative benefit they have is minimal. They should be the last thing to consider after appropriate training and diet planning.” That said, studies show certain supplements can give your workout a boost.
What ingredients should you look out for?
Dr Kian, training specialist at Freeletics, says beta-alanine could be worth a try, especially when it comes to endurance. “In the body, beta-alanine acts like a buffer. It prevents the blood from becoming too acidic too quickly and can therefore prolong a short high-intensity effort. A growing body of evidence has consistently demonstrated beta-alanine can improve performance in short-type endurance activities – that’s anything intense that lasts between one to four minutes. Think a long set of squats, a 400m sprint, or a 1,500m race.” But beta-alanine won’t work its magic overnight, he says. “Studies show you need to take it for two to four weeks (4-6g daily) for it to act as a buffer.” Branched chain amino acids (aka BCAAs) are also worth considering, he says. “These amino acids play a role in regulating muscle glucose uptake as well as promoting muscle synthesis. Low blood levels of BCAAs have been associated with fatigue in sports, especially endurance sports lasting more than two hours. BCAA supplementation has been show to delay fatigue in novice athletes, but results are not significant in more experienced ones.”
What about coffee? Doesn’t that provide a decent energy boost
Absolutely – caffeine is one of the most under-rated pre-workout supplements. “For anyone who’s not a professional athlete, caffeine is probably one of the best, most affordable and accessible pre-workout supplements,” says Dr Kian. “It improves one’s nervous system output, can keep you focused and can temporarily push away feelings of fatigue.” But how much to take before you hit the gym? “I recommend 2-9mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight 30-60 minutes prior to exercise. For example, as an 100kg man, that equates to 200-900mg of caffeine,” says Harry. “For reference, your average espresso contains around 40mg of caffeine and filter coffee contains around 100mg. You can also buy caffeine tablets that contain about 200mg per dose.”