Choosing the Right Tools in Your Performance Toolbox: Maximizing Pre-Workout Performance
It’s leg day and you’re on the way to the gym. Your days and weeks lately have been crazy. Work, school, commute, family, paying the bills. You’re tired. You know you haven’t been sleeping well lately. You’re hungry. You know your hectic schedule has caused you to miss meals too frequently. And let’s be honest… you’ve had more than a few fast food meals this week already. You’re thirsty. You know you haven’t been drinking enough water lately but hey, coffee counts right? But you can’t miss leg day today and your training partner’s already at the gym waiting for you. So you mix up your favorite pre-workout powder in your water bottle and start drinking as you literally walk into the gym. You can’t be late for that first set of squats. And you think “job done” - pre-workout on board, now my training is going to be killer. But it isn’t. You go through the motions and you get your training done. But no PR’s today. In fact, you barely finish. Your first thought? I need to change my pre-workout. My body is accustomed to this one already. So you jump on your phone as you sit in the car to start looking at reviews online.
Can you relate? If any of this feels like you, chances are it’s not your pre-workout that needs to change - but rather some other things in your life that work together to fuel your performance. So before we continue let’s do a quick performance check-in. How many of these statements can you agree with?
You adhere to a position of “food first.” You’ve worked out your daily calorie, protein, carbohydrate and fat needs based on your goals and activity levels. You try to eat a balanced diet with no unrealistic or unnecessary restrictions. You’ve created a realistic meal and snack timing program based on your schedule. You consistently fuel up with food based on your goals. You use food strategically to support your recovery. You’re proactively using tools such as a food diary or apps to help keep you on track with your nutrition.
You have a realistic hydration plan created based on your goals. You’ve worked out how much water you need each day based on your goals. You’re going into your training appropriately hydrated for your goals. You’re using tools such as an app to keep your hydration plan on track.
You have a sleep schedule worked out that’s giving you at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night. You’re minimizing sleep disrupters such as phones, television and lights prior to sleep. You’ve created a good sleep environment for your needs and preferences. You’re using technology to track your sleep and you’re making adjustments to improve the length and quality of your sleep as needed.
You’ve developed a stress reduction plan that works for you and your life that includes at minimum both mental and physical techniques. You are using tools such as a stress diary or technology such as apps to help you stay on track with your stress reduction plan.
You’ve developed a recovery plan that works for you and your life that includes periodization and planned rest days across the year based on your goals and incorporates all the aspects of this checklist – nutrition, hydration, sleep and stress reduction. You’re using tools such as calendars and technology including apps to manage your recovery.
If you’re reading through this list and and you feel like you are reading a foreign language, the simple fact is that no pre-workout is going to compensate for a less than good (notice it doesn’t say “perfect”) lifestyle. And until you focus on some of these lifestyle areas your pre-workout is more of a crutch to prop up your workouts. On the other, if you’re smiling and nodding your head positively in agreement to many of these checklist statements, you’re probably ready to start considering how a pre-workout can help support your personal performance goals.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO USE A PREWORKOUT?
Chances are you might have some unique goals around using a preworkout. And these goals could very well be based on who you are as an athlete. Why does this matter? Because, as with most things in life, there is no “one size fits all solution.” Have a look at the broad goals below and decide where you best fit.
Your overarching goal is muscle and/or strength. You are focused on building maximum muscle size, muscle strength, speed, power and/or explosiveness. Your focus is to gain weight or gain mass. Or perhaps a combination. All coming back to “build.”
Your overarching goal is to lose or “burn”. Your focus is to lose weight, lose fat, lose a dress size, trim your waist. You want to change your physique and your appearance.
You’re an athlete outside of the gym. You are an endurance athlete, you play team sports, you’re a fighter, an extreme athlete, or you want to be better at a particular sport or skill. Your primary focus is on your performance.
CURRENT STATE OF PREWORKOUT CHOICES
Once you know who you are as an athlete, it potentially becomes easier to choose a pre-workout that better fits your personal goals. In today’s sports nutrition industry, preworkouts can be generally classified into three main areas.
These products came from the earlier days of pre-workouts in the gym and were used predominantly by bodybuilders. They are often characterized by having a very large number of ingredients, often in proprietary blends. These legacy preworkouts were generally created to focus on a specific benefit and taste wasn’t usually a priority. They are typically moderately high in Caffeine. And they typically have ingredients intended to help support muscle size, strength, and pumps—such as Creatine, Arginine, and/or Citrulline.
These are preworkouts driven in large part by very high amounts of Caffeine. Along with the Caffeine, are typically ingredients intended to support focus and mental alertness. The user of these high-stimulant preworkouts will often see themselves as a “performance hacker” and want to be among the first to try new-to-the-market ingredients and products.
As sports nutrition continues to evolve from its traditional gym setting into team sports, endurance sports and more lifestyle activities, these preworkouts are often created with a very simple combination of well-known ingredients and might feature attributes such as natural source caffeine and no artificial flavors, sweeteners or colors.
WHAT DRIVES A PREWORKOUT?
Now that you should have a better understanding of the general types of preworkouts to choose from, let’s take a look at some of the most foundational preworkout ingredients.
Caffeine is the primary energy ingredient in preworkouts. Average healthy adults often use caffeine as a morning routine to wake up, help reduce fatigue when they feel tired or support focus when they need it. Performance-driven athletes may use Caffeine to help support their activity, endurance, energy and focus.
Caffeine acts in the brain by blocking the action of a neurotransmitter called Adenosine. Adenosine promotes relaxation and sleepiness. When Caffeine occupies the adenosine receptors in the brain, it can help support energy and focus – the reasons why most athletes use a Caffeine-containing preworkout.
Today we see a number of different forms of Caffeine available. What’s important to consider is that the brain does not significantly differentiate the forms.
What does change is the amount. It’s pretty well established that Caffeine for performance should be used in amounts between 100 and 350 milligrams to help support energy, endurance, focus, attention and thermogenesis. While everyone has a different response to Caffeine based on various factors, in respect to performance, using more probably won’t improve benefit and may only result in increased negative effects such as an upset stomach or irritability. In other words – more is not better. For healthy adults, Caffeine levels up to 400 mg total per day are studied to be safe.
And remember that opening scenario of drinking your preworkout as you walk into the gym? In general, Caffeine takes about 30 minutes to an hour to take effect in the body. If your training session lasts an hour, your Caffeine just peaked when you finished. And remember the checklist on sleep? Caffeine can stay active for several hours after consuming. Make sure to time your consumption so as to not disrupt your sleep and potentially your recovery.
Beta-alanine is another ingredient found in many preworkouts and yet many preworkout users don’t really know why it’s there. They often say it makes their face “tingle”. But is that a performance benefit?
Beta-alanine is a precursor to Carnosine, a molecule that supports buffering acid in muscles in response to physical activity. Supplementation with Beta-alanine over time helps increase muscle Carnosine concentrations and supports what we call muscular endurance. It’s important to note here than Beta-alanine doesn’t work “acutely.” This is not a supplement that you will have an immediate performance effect from. In other words. You can’t take Beta-alanine now and go have a better workout later today. Beta-alanine works “chronically.’ The benefits of Beta-alanine are typically realized when used consistently (both training and non-training days) for at least a month. Beta Alanine can support endurance, Carnosine synthesis, and may help you train harder and longer when taken over time.
The most common side effect of Beta-alanine consumption is called Parasthesia, which is a tingling sensation commonly felt in fingers, toes, or face. The tingling effect differs from person to person. Some people feel nothing while others have an intense sensation. The tingling usually goes away over time. There is a lack of evidence to suggest that Parasthesia is a health risk. However, what we do believe is that the tingling from Parasthesia does not equal performance benefits.
Let’s take a look here at some of the common beliefs around BCAAs that might be better called “myths” of BCAAs.
Common Myth #1: BCAAs prevent muscle breakdown during fasted cardio.
Truth: BCAAs can help spare muscle during intense or prolonged exercise.
Common Myth #2: Consuming BCAAs equate to instant muscle gain.
Truth: Gaining muscle is a process that requires a consistent daily routine of proper nutrition, resistance exercise, and adequate recovery.
Common Myth #3: Consuming BCAAs directly delay the onset of fatigue.
Truth: More research is needed.
So what are BCCAs and why are they of interest to athletes ranging from Strength Sports to Team Sports to Endurance Sports? BCAAs include three Essential Amino Acids – Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. They are so named “Branched Chain” because they have a unique branching carbon structure that resemble tree branches. This makes them somewhat unique as they can be metabolized directly in skeletal muscle.
Strength Athletes and many Team Sports Athletes are quite interested in BCAA for the Leucine. Leucine in particular helps to support muscle protein synthesis (MPS) when taken over time with regular resistance training. But don’t get carried away. More Leucine in a BCAA blend does not equal more muscle!
Endurance Athletes have long been interested in BCAAs as they can help spare muscle during prolonged activity and endurance training. But don’t skip out on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the bodies preferred source of energy. Consume carbohydrates before, during and after activity as needed to help fuel and replenish working muscle. And just remember that while the body can use Protein and BCAAs for energy they are not the body’s preferred energy source.
And what about how much to use and the ratios? It’s recommend to use 5 grams of BCAA in a 2:1:1 ratio with 2.5 grams of Leucine to 1.25 grams of Isoleucine to 1.25 grams of Valine. This is the naturally occurring ratio found within a typical glass of milk and also the same ratio found in skeletal muscle. Unfortunately, some supplement marketers and manufacturers may take advantage of consumers by offering extreme ratios without scientific support. There is little scientific evidence to support changing the ratios of BCAAs. In fact, there is a lack of published scientific evidence to validate various other ratios of BCAAs. In other words, changing the ratio does not change performance.
So ultimately, BCAAs can help to support muscle and spare muscle during prolonged activity.
As we take a look at perhaps the least used tool in the performance toolbox, let’s consider some of the most common reasons people today don’t use Creatine. In other words – Creatine myths…
Common Myths: Creatine makes females bulk up. Creatine increases water retention. Creatine causes cramping. Creatine causes dehydration.
Before Understanding Creatine, which is one of the most well-researched and tested sports nutrition supplements, you need to understand energy production in the body. Every cell needs energy to function. Muscle cells need energy to contract. This energy is in the form of a molecule called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). Energy is produced when one of the phosphate groups is removed from the ATP molecule. Once the one phosphate group is removed, only two remain. The molecule is now called ADP (Adenosine Diphosphate). This “recycling” process requires energy and the replacement of the third phosphate.
This brings us back to Creatine. Creatine can support energy production by supporting ATP regeneration. Creatine may support strength, power, performance, recovery, and muscle building when taken over time with regular resistance exercise.
So what does this all mean? Taking Creatine daily (training and non-training days) over time
One last thing. As Creatine works chronically over time and not acutely, loading Creatine is simply not necessary. Once muscle Creatine levels are maxed, you are not going increase levels further. In addition, time of day for consumption is less important as well so do whatever is convenient for you and will encourage consistency in your routine.
WHEN TO USE A PREWORKOUT?
Let's go back to Caffeine. The main “feeling effect” ingredient in most preworkouts takes about 30-60 minutes to take effect and can remain active for several hours. So simply plan ahead. As part of your overall performance plan, consider taking your preworkout wherever you are, about an hour before training or events. And be mindful of taking close to sleep, as you don’t want to disrupt your recovery.
WHAT ABOUT CYCLING PREWORKOUTS?
Again, going back to our opening scenario, how often have we heard someone say, “my preworkout doesn’t work anymore, I need to change it?” Chances are it’s not your preworkout. Take a look at all the Caffeine you are consuming throughout the day—coffees, teas, soda, energy drinks, yerba mate—and make sure you are staying below 400 milligrams total per day (assuming of course again you are a healthy adult). A simple tool that more elite athletes use is to use their pre-workouts more strategically to support their most intense training sessions, thus reducing the total amount of Caffeine they consume in a typical day or week.
WHAT TO EXPECT REALISTICALLY WITH A PREWORKOUT…
As we wrap up here remember the most important message… no preworkout is going to compensate for lack of sleep, proper nutrition, and adequate recovery. If you are not sure what that means, please go back to the beginning of this article and recheck the checklist! Assuming you are good with the lifestyle tool checklist, as you’ve now taken a hard look at who you are as an athlete, your goals and what type of preworkout is best for you, you should realize that a preworkout can be a really powerful tool in your performance toolbox – but it's just one tool. So use it wisely and don’t forget all the other tools in your performance toolbox that together can help move you from ordinary to extraordinary!