What’s the Deal With Pre-Workout Drinks and Supplements?

Everyone wants to make their workouts better and more efficient, right? That’s why when you hear of a pre-workout drink or supplement that basically advertises that you’ll be able to flip over a car if you drink it, you’re bound to be intrigued. Many of these supplements claim they can help boost your endurance, agility and strength, but are those claims legit? Like the age-old wisdom that things that seem to be too good to be true probably are, these magic bullets are likely not all they’re cracked up to be. Here’s the rundown on pre-workout drinks and supplements.

Is pre workout bad for you?

With the plethora of “healthy” drinks out there, it’s easy to get confused about what’s what. There are a few main differences between conventional beverages and supplements, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which manages anti-doping testing for Olympic sport. Typical beverages that are billed as foods must have a primary purpose of hydration and should not contain unnecessary additives. Supplements are meant to do just that—supplement the diet—and can’t have a primary purpose of hydration.

A pre workout powder or drink isn’t necessarily bad for you, but some pre workout supplements may include ingredients that are not approved by the FDA. Supplements are also allowed to include untested or novelty ingredients that may have not been approved by the FDA, so you might not be sure what you’re getting is 100% safe. Additionally, some pre workout drinks contain a high level of caffeine, which can be harmful in excess.

If you are going to consume a supplement, you want to keep a discerning eye on the ingredient list.

Additionally, a pre workout meal containing “too much fiber, fat or protein just prior to a workout (at least one that is more intense and jostles the stomach) is generally discouraged, as it can lead to stomach upset,” Alpert says. “If you want to include these nutrients, make sure you allow plenty of time to digest prior to exercise. Generally, beware of products with laundry lists of ingredients you don’t recognize. Again, real food can be great fuel, too—you don’t always need to turn to specialty products!”

What does pre workout do?

Besides actually motivating yourself to get out the door for a workout and toting along your gym clothes, there’s actually little else you need to “prep” for a workout, Alpert says. Pre workout drinks and meals provide you with an additional burst of energy so that you can get the most out of your workout.

“Having a healthy snack and staying hydrated is the best pre-workout tool you need,” she says. “Many sports drinks are loaded with sugar and aren’t necessary for a 60-minute workout. If you’re sweating intensely, a low-calorie electrolyte can be beneficial…these electrolytes can help keep your body in balance and allow you to perform at your best and recover quickly.” Some options that Alpert suggests are Nuun active hydration tablets, which dissolve in plain water, or coconut water.

If you decide that your workout regimen or dietary needs make it necessary for you to take a supplement, don’t feel like you have to settle on a fave right away. Also, keep in mind that what works for a friend may not necessarily be the right fit for you. “It’s really important to see what works for you. Everyone is different, and it is important to experiment with several and find out what works for you,” Alpert says. “Sports nutrition is highly individualized and each person has unique tolerances and needs. And if you do not require these products, then real food as fuel is what’s best for your body. “

The benefits of pre workout

Workout drinks or supplements aren’t all bad, though. In fact, they can actually be helpful for serious exercisers. According to Brooke Alpert, M.S., R.D., founder of B Nutritious, pre-workout sports drinks can be helpful to hardcore athletes. “The majority of the casual exercisers don’t need any additional supplements other than water,” she says. “Endurance athletes, active individuals who follow a restrictive diet or heavy weight lifters will likely need an extra boost. But again, I stress that the average workout does not need to be nutritionally reinforced.” Basically, if your day job is working out, then one of these additionally supplements may be right for you. If you’re a desk jockey, however, you likely don’t need to make the addition to your diet.

Kelsey Butler is a reporter and editor living in New Jersey. She has written for health and lifestyle publications including Women's Health and Brides. A proud dog mom of one, you can find her skiing or on the bocce court in her spare time.