Pre-workout supplements are popular among the fitness community because they contain ingredients that give you an extra boost of energy that can improve your athletic performance. When I first started exercising I would take pre-workout regularly, but I was always picky because there were some that left me feeling jittery even after my workout.
Pre-workout varies in price and usually comes in a box or a tub of individual packets to mix with water. One thing to keep in mind is that pre-workout is not strictly regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration for safety, since it’s classified as a “food” and not a “drug.” Therefore, one concern that may arise is if the stimulants in some of these supplements are safe to ingest. Most pre-workouts use caffeine as the main stimulant, which is safe when dosed correctly. Other common, non-stimulant ingredients that aid energy and performance include electrolytes, taurine, creatine, beta-alanine, amino acids and nitric oxide precursors. As with any supplement, it’s important to vet the ingredient list and be mindful of the dosage you take to avoid going overboard.
I tried a range of pre-workouts while training for my next half-marathon to see which ones are worth their salt. Below are the top pre-workouts that you should use for an extra boost before your workouts. Plus, more information about how to make sure your pre-workout is safe and whether you really need one.
Best accessible pre-workout
Yup, a good ol’ cup of joe can make for a decent pre-workout. Coffee offers plenty of caffeine for that jolt you’re looking for before a workout. After all, it does the same thing pre-workout does, it’s cheaper, and as long as you know your body can handle coffee, it’s a good and easy to find choice. You should avoid drinking coffee as a pre-workout if you have caffeine or gastrointestinal sensitivities or if it’s close to your bedtime, since sleep can be disrupted.
If you opt for coffee as a pre-workout, all you need to do is drink a cup 45 minutes to an hour before your workout so you give your body time to absorb it. This is also a safe option for those who you aren’t ready to commit to an actual pre-workout supplement.
What I love about Nuun is that these tablets dissolve easily and can be consumed before, during and after your run. They contain electrolytes, which are essential minerals such as magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium that are found in our blood, urine and sweat. When you sweat you lose many of these minerals, which is why sometimes drinking water isn’t enough. I used Nuun consistently during my peak training runs and found they helped keep me going, no matter the distance. Nuun comes in a tube with 10 dissolvable tablets in flavors such as Berry Blast, Citrus Fruit, Fruit Punch and Lemon Line to name a few. These can be easily mixed with water and dissolve in less than two minutes. One tube costs about $8, which is on the cheaper end of the pre-workouts on this list.
Although it’s technically not marketed as a pre-workout, Nuun serves a similar purpose because it keeps your body hydrated and replenishes any electrolytes lost during your workout to prevent you from bonking out. I personally like that the brand offers caffeinated and non-caffeinated options, so there’s something for any active individual. I’ve tried both the non-caffeinated and caffeinated tablets without any issues, and found the caffeinated tablets work well as a pre-workout because they gave me the boost I needed prior to hitting the pavement.
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Another electrolyte pre-workout that has helped me with half-marathon training is Cure Hydration. Cure Hydration is a caffeine-free electrolyte powder that comes in individual packets and just needs to be mixed with water. It is made up of organic coconut water and Himalayan salt, and it’s free of artificial sugars and sweeteners. It’s also low in calories at 25 calories a packet.
According to the website, Cure has four times the electrolytes of sports drinks and comes in various flavors such as Berry Pomegranate, Lemon, Grapefruit and Watermelon. My favorites were the Watermelon and Berry Pomegranate flavors. I take Cure before my runs and post-run to help with recovery. After I started using it, I never crashed after a tough run like I used to because I was keeping my electrolytes leveled before and after running with this drink.
This is a good choice for those who want a boost without the caffeine or artificial sugars. You can purchase a pack with eight individual packets for $15, which is a good place to start if you’re new to the brand. If you’ve established that you’re a fan, the Cure website also offers a variety pack with 28 individual packets for $46 or a single flavor with 14 packets for $23.
Shifted is a pre-workout brand that prides itself on using science to back and develop its powder. It is available in a Maximum Formula Pre-Workout and Premium Formula Pre-Workout. Key ingredients include L-citrulline, beet root extract, creatine monohydrate and alpha-GPC, intended to give you energy and keep you focused during your workout. It also has 250 mg of caffeine. Additionally, the powders are sugar-free, gluten-free and soy-free. I tried Shifted’s Very Berry flavor in their Premium Formula pre-workout and was pleasantly surprised by the flavor.
I mixed two-thirds of a scoop with water, and took it about 30 to 45 minutes before my workout. I appreciated that the drink had a pleasant berry flavor without the bad aftertaste. It also provided me with an adequate amount of energy that didn’t leave me feeling jittery after the workout or give me any negative side effects. At $40 for a jar, it’s on the pricier side, but if you’re looking for a pre-workout formula that does the job without any questionable additives, Shifted is a great choice.
UCAN takes a unique approach to its products because it doesn’t use traditional stimulants. Instead it uses SuperStarch, which is a low-glycemic, complex carbohydrate made by a patented cooking method applied to a specific strain of non-GMO corn. The purpose behind SuperStarch is to provide athletes with steady, long-lasting energy without the sugar or carb crash.
I tried UCAN’s energy powder in the Cran-raz flavor prior to my strength training workout and initially followed the directions on the tub which said to mix one scoop of powder with 8 to 12 ounces of water. Similar to other pre-workouts I’ve tried, I found one scoop to be too sweet and a half scoop was a better alternative. Even though I shook it up using a water bottle, you’d benefit from either blending it or using a shaker ball for a smoother consistency. Otherwise you’ll end up with some powder settled at the bottom, which is what happened to me.
Despite that mishap, the pre-workout stayed true to its word and gave me the energy I needed to get through my workout. I also felt like my energy levels remained steady even after the fact. UCAN didn’t have a negative effect on my stomach, and that probably is because of the formula, which the brand says is made to be slowly released and absorbed by the body. At about $70 a tub, UCAN is the most expensive pre-workout on the list, but I can see how it can appeal to all types of athletes looking for the right amount of boost without the crash or stimulants.
I tend to gravitate towards berry flavored pre-workouts and Ascent’s Blueberry Raspberry hit the spot. It reminded me of the blue raspberry Jolly Rancher flavor, which was a favorite of mine as a kid. However, now that I’m older, I can only handle so much sweetness. I followed the directions on Ascent’s pre-workout bag and mixed one scoop of pre-workout with 10 ounces of water 20 to 30 minutes before my workout. I found the flavor to be super sweet, but it didn’t leave a bad aftertaste or upset my stomach. Next time I would do half a scoop to cut back on the sweetness.
This pre-workout has 150 mg of caffeine, which gave me enough energy to complete my tough strength training workout and left me focused even afterward. It also features 250 mg of electrolytes, which is important to keep you hydrated as you sweat during your workout. At $35 for a 12.7-ounce bag, it’s priced fairly for those looking for a middle of the road option. I was happy that Ascent gave me the adequate amount of energy I needed to charge up my morning and workout.
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I’ve found that fruit-flavored pre-workouts can sometimes be filled with lots of artificial flavorings, which can taste too sweet. This Beachbody pre-workout passed with flying colors. It doesn’t have artificial flavors or sweeteners, which is helpful to know if you aren’t a fan of most of the artificial sweeteners in pre-workouts.
I tried this pre-workout in the fruit punch flavor, and it was sweet without an unpleasant aftertaste. I had the individual packets, but Beachbody also sells 9.2-ounce tubs as an alternative. At about $55, this pre-workout is on the higher price range compared to other pre-workouts on this list. This pre-workout consists of quercetin, which is a plant-based antioxidant that helps delay exercise-induced muscle fatigue to keep you going. It also contains 100 mg of caffeine per serving and it should be noted that the directions say not to exceed two packets a day.
Other pre-workouts we tested
Ladder: This pre-workout was created with athletes in mind to make sure they perform to the best of their ability. It has caffeine, creatine, Beta-Alanine and L-Theanine. I tried the Tropical Fruit and Strawberry Lemonade flavors. Despite having no gastrointestinal issues, I wasn’t a fan of the flavors and the aftertaste that lingered. However, if I were to choose between the two, I would go with the Strawberry Lemonade because it had the better flavor profile.
Coco5: Although Coco5 is technically more of an electrolyte beverage, it is intended to be consumed during or after your workout to replenish electrolytes. I liked the cherry flavor and that the coconut water flavor is not detectable. Coco5 didn’t make the best list because the sugar content and calories were higher in comparison to Cure’s and Nuun electrolyte powders. Coco5’s drinks are still lower in calories and sugar than traditional sports drinks, so it’s a better choice if you had to pick between the two.
How we picked
We acknowledge that everyone’s body is different in the way they handle pre-workouts or any other supplement. Therefore, I used my own anecdotal experience as a fitness enthusiast and a recreational runner training for my next half-marathon to test and select the best pre-workouts. These were exceptionally helpful on those days when I needed the extra boost to get me through my long runs or a strength training workout. When selecting the best pre-workout brands, I looked at:
- Brand reputability and safety
- Price point
- Flavor and aftertaste
- Whether the product provided the energy boost promised
- Whether the product was stomach-friendly
- Ingredients, including caffeine and caffeine-free options
Pre-workouts come in the form of a powder, are mixed with water and taken a half hour or up to an hour before a workout to help boost energy and performance.
Many pre-workouts contain stimulants, which have always been a controversial topic in the fitness supplement industry because the US Anti-Doping Agency wants to keep certain illegal and potentially harmful ingredients off the market. Stimulants can raise your heart rate and blood pressure as well as increase nervous system activity. Some pre-workouts on the market have been found to contain unsafe and untested stimulants.
If you have concerns about purchasing pre-workout, verify the product through a third party tested by a company such as NSF International, Informed Choice or Banned Substances Control Group. This will give you the peace of mind that the supplement you’re taking is safe and free of banned substances.
Pre-workout, like any other supplement, is intended to be used in addition to a well-balanced diet and lifestyle. It should not be used as a treatment for any health concerns you may have. If you find yourself constantly lacking energy or if you have any other fitness-related health issues, you should discuss with your doctor before taking pre-workout or any new supplement to make sure you are a good candidate for it.
Do pre-workouts have side effects?
Side effects are one of the reasons some people are hesitant to take a pre-workout supplement. Some may be sensitive to caffeine, which is a key stimulant in many products, while others may not respond well to other ingredients such as artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. Then there are those who have certain health conditions and are medically advised to avoid them altogether.
Do I need to take a pre-workout?
You don’t have to take a pre-workout supplement to perform well during a workout. Some people say it gives them the extra pep they need, and studies have been promising so far.