Pushing through a workout can feel like quite the “drag,” but some folks still push through it and many times feel good afterwards. Sometimes, taking a pre-workout beverage/ energy drink gives the “boost” needed to perform at one’s best. These beverages/supplements (supps) receive mixed opinion by the public/media outlets. In this article, we’ll discuss what science says about the beverages & supps as well as reasons why people use them, and we’ll review potential benefits and risks associated with their use.

Pre-workout supps such as powders & energy drinks (including energy shots) have a history of being controversial in the mainstream media and amongst nutrition and health professionals. Statements made for and against these pre-workouts are quite common; several examples being:

  • Improve energy
  • They are bad for you
  • Help with weight loss
  • Can cause weight gain
  • Improve performance
  • Not good for your heart

We are not here to argue either side of these statements, but we are here to discuss what science says about pre-workouts & energy drinks. Keep in mind, this is not meant to persuade you in favor of or against these supps, it is intended to educate and allow you to make a decision for yourself.

Ingredients

According to the energy drinks position stand by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) common ingredients and their potential benefits found in pre-workout supps are

Ingredient Potential Science Backed Benefits
Caffeine Increase alertness, metabolism, and improved exercise performance
Carbohydrates Improved exercise performance
B & C Vitamins Minimal to no evidence for performance enhancement in pre-workout supps
Electrolytes Minimal to no evidence for performance enhancement in pre-workout supps

The most common ingredient out of the ones listed above is caffeine, let's focus on that a bit more. Caffeine is one of, if not the most, studied supplements. There is overwhelming evidence for potential benefits in healthy populations (consult your physician prior to use). Another ISSN position stand from 2021 specifically about caffeine and exercise performance lists the following potential benefits (2):

  • Muscular endurance & strength
  • Velocity
  • Sprinting
  • Jumping
  • Throwing
  • Increased aerobic exercise improvement

It is suggested to take 3-6 mg/kg of body weight for potential performance enhancement. I.e. a 135 lb person would take 184mg -368mg of caffeine for potential benefits (a typical cup of coffee will have 40mg - 150mg of caffeine) (1). *Note: these numbers are based on scientific findings and each person should be aware and mindful of any side effects they experience with caffeine*

Potential Risks

Pre-workouts are generally safe for healthy individuals/people who do not have any contraindications, but that does not mean there are no potential risks associated with their use. An important point is that the “poison” is in the dosage and each person may have different experiences from the next. Pre-workouts & energy drinks are meant to increase energy for improved performance during a workout/training session, with that in mind, more is not always better.

Associated risks (1):

  • Potential blood sugar issues with presence of diabetes/pre-diabetes
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Tachycardia
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety

It is important to note that these side effects are not common in all people, but may be experienced by some. Pre-workouts & energy drinks are generally regarded as safe, but that does not mean they are for everyone. Context is ALWAYS important; the context in this case is knowing why one would use a pre-workout supp and what potential side effects are.

Summary

In conclusion, pre-workouts & energy drinks have potential benefits and adverse effects. Potential benefits range from cognitive enhancements to improved athletic performance. Possible adverse effects can be feelings of anxiousness to lack of sleep. These supps are not necessary and may have potential negative side effects, but can also be helpful. Knowing when and why to take them is always an important piece of context to have bear in mind.

References

  1. Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., La Bounty, P. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: energy drinks. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 10, 1 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-1
  2. Guest, N.S., VanDusseldorp, T.A., Nelson, M.T. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 1 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00383-4