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Simplifying pre-workout supplements


In the course of your training, you may have considered supplements as a way to help improve your progress and performance but have wondered which to take, how they work, and how to supplement properly.

In this interview, Dr. Kianoush Missaghi, Freeletics Senior Training Experience Manager, answers some of the commonly asked questions about pre-workout supplements including creatine, beta-alanine, and caffeine.

In your opinion, are any pre-workout supplements worth it? Which do you recommend?

For anyone who’s not an amateur or professional competitive athlete, I would say that caffeine is probably one of the best, affordable and accessible pre-workout supplements out there. It improves one’s nervous system output, it can help us stay more focused, and it can temporarily push away a feeling of fatigue.

Of course nothing beats a regular good night’s sleep and healthy diet, but even if you don’t have all your bases covered, caffeine can come in handy when you need an extra kick to get you going. It cannot make up for poor sleep and eating habits though.

For the amateur/professional athletes who want to push the limits of their physiology to gain a competitive advantage over their opponents in strength and power, and intense shorter endurance sports, caffeine, creatine and beta-alanine can be used pre-workout too.

How soon before a workout should you have caffeine for maximum effect?

Caffeine takes about 30-60 minutes post-consumption to reach its peak concentration in the blood and has a half-life of 3-5 hours. Therefore, I would recommend one to consume up to 60 minutes before a workout to reap the most benefits out of it. It’s not recommended to exceed 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day, to avoid adverse effects of caffeine.

400 mg of caffeine is the equivalent of two-and-a-half small 8 ounce coffees, five espresso shots, or eight cups of black tea. Moreover, because sleep is so important for recovery, I would not recommend ingesting too high of a dose past 4:00 p.m., with regards to the total daily consumed dose, if you usually train in the evening.

Remember that the half-life of caffeine is around 3 to 5 hours, meaning that caffeine can stay in your body for up to 6 to 10 hours--and it’s cumulative. The more you drink it the longer it will stay in your body.

So if you train later at night, you can afford ingesting caffeine more than 60 minutes away from your training and still benefit from its intake.

overhead shot of cup of coffee and coffee beans

Do you think caffeine is an under-rated pre-workout “supplement”?

I don’t think caffeine is an under-rated supplement. In fact I think that many people are aware of its benefits and, because it’s an essential food commodity, the vast majority of us have personally experienced its positive effects at the mental and physical level.

However, it could be that because caffeine is so common in our everyday lives that it’s not as “sexy” as the new heavily marketed trending supplements.

If your goal is weight loss, what supplements should you consider taking pre-workout?

The magic weight loss pill doesn’t exist. Weight loss is mostly a question of energy balance, meaning that one has to spend more energy than they take in, via exercise and a healthier diet.

However, stimulants like caffeine do promote the increase of fat tissue utilization as energy substrate during exercise, especially during cardio endurance type of activities such as running and cycling .

How soon before working out should you take it, and how much?

So if someone ingests caffeine prior to training they will increase the proportion of fat being used as energy and thus burn more fat during that activity. Then again, if that same person overeats they will still gain fat and not get leaner. One always has to look at the bigger picture.

If your goal is muscle gain and/or getting toned, what supplements should you consider taking pre-workout?

Similar to weight loss, If one’s goal is to gain muscle mass, the overarching rule is energy balance, meaning that one has to consume more then they can spend.

On top of this, one has to follow a training program directed at putting on muscle mass as well, otherwise all the extra calories that one consumes will be stored as fat instead of being used to build muscles.

If someone respects these overall principles, anything that can support one training consistently, while being able to train hard when necessary, will help someone achieve their goals more easily.

How soon before working out should you take it, and how much?

In that context, caffeine and creatine are a good choice of pre-workout supplements, because they can help us be more prime and maximize our rapid energy stocks needed to support the short and intense-effort bouts of a muscle-mass-building program, thus helping us push ourselves when we have to. This could look like one normal dose of coffee with 2 to 5 grams of creatine up to 60 minutes pre-workout.

If you want to boost endurance, is there anything you can take? I’ve heard beta-alanine can be good.

In the body, beta-alanine acts like a buffer. It prevents the blood from becoming too acidic too quickly and can therefore prolong a sustained short high-intensity effort.

A growing body of evidence has consistently demonstrated that beta-alanine can improve performances in short-type endurance activities. Anything intense that lasts between one to four minutes. Think of a long set of squats, a 400 meter sprint, or a 1500 meter track & field race.

However, for it to work, beta-alanine must be stored in order for it to have a significant effect. It’s been demonstrated that one needs approximately two to four weeks of beta-alanine (4 to 6 grams daily) for it to act as a buffer. This means that if someone has an event coming up, one must cycle their beta-alanine consumption accordingly. More research is needed to determine its role in longer endurance events.

We all know we need protein after a workout, but is there anything to be said for taking it pre workout instead/as well?

Protein plays an important part in recovery. As much as we need carbs and fats to refuel our body post-workout, we also need a good amount of protein to repair our muscles and tissue that have been used during training.

Unlike caffeine and other performance enhancing substances, pre-workout protein intake doesn’t directly enhance performance. So if someone ingests a protein supplement pre-workout, it will contribute to one’s general daily protein intake supporting tissue growth, immunity and recovery.

I’ve heard a lot about BCAAs – why the hype?

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) refer to three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which can naturally be found in many protein sources, such as meat and eggs, for example. These amino acids play a role in regulating the muscle glucose uptake as well as promoting muscle synthesis.

Low blood BCAA levels have been associated with fatigue in sports, especially endurance sports lasting more than 2 hours. BCAA supplementation has been shown to delay fatigue in novice athletes but results are not significant in more experienced ones.

Nonetheless, if someone’s protein intake is inadequate because of an unbalanced diet, BCAA supplementation can be helpful during these activities.

Are some pre-workout supplements more suited to men than women, or do they have the same effect on both sexes?

When we speak about coffee, beta-alanine and creatine, we can expect similar effects for both sexes.

However, any kind of substances, in this case pre-workout supplements, could potentially have different effects between individuals of the same sex. This is also true for individuals of different sexes. The genetic makeup and the hormones levels of the individuals will most likely be the determining factors as regards these differences.

When looking for a pre-workout supplement, is there a preferred form to take? For example, a powder you add to your shake, capsules, or a pre-mixed drink?

I would say that you have to find the form that fits best to your lifestyle. Sometimes you’re not hungry or thirsty, so perhaps a tablet is better suited to one’s needs in these cases especially if one is traveling (e.g. a caffeine capsule).

On the other hand, ingesting a pre-workout with too much water could delay its absorption time, but if you take up to 60 minutes pre-workout then you’ll have enough time to digest it anyway.

If using a pre-workout supplement in line with a healthy lifestyle, how quickly will you see results?

The number one rule of training, assuming one follows a good program and eats well, is consistency. Pre-workout supplements can help one feel more energized and motivated to train, but if one doesn’t do so consistently then one will never see the results they expect.

Are there any downsides to using a pre-workout supplement?

As I mentioned before, if your pre-workout caffeine supplement contributes to raising your dose over the recommended daily limit of 400 mg, you could feel the adverse effects of caffeine, such as headache, insomnia, fast heartbeat, etc.

Side effects of creatine consumption can include bowel irritation, diarrhea and nausea while daily doses of beta-alanine can induce a tingling feeling.

Most of these symptoms are also associated with high dosage, so one can adjust the intake level accordingly as well.

Supplementation can also make the kidneys work more, therefore the kidney function could potentially be affected, but more studies looking at the long-term effects of it are needed.

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