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Experts Say This Is The Best Time To Take Pre-Workout

I get it, you're constantly looking for new ways to up your fitness game. (Honestly, same!) Whether you want to improve your speed, strength, or build muscle, you've probably heard about pre-workout and might be wondering if supplements like it actually work.

Pre-workout contains multiple vitamins and caffeine and is a supplement intended to give you energy and help you tackle your workouts with ease. That sounds pretty impressive, but the actual impact varies. Everyone responds to caffeine differently, so your experience may be totally different than your workout buddy's (but more on that later).

Meet the experts: Amanda Baker Lemein, RD, is a registered dietitian and member of the Women's Health Advisory Board. Judine St. Gerard, CPT, is a NASM-certified personal trainer and head coach at Tone House in New York City. She is also a Master's candidate in NYU's Nutrition and Dietetics graduate program.

And not all pre-workout brands on the market are created equal. In fact, some might offer more of a placebo effect, notes Amanda Baker Lemein, a registered dietitian and member of the Women's Health Advisory Board. "Carbohydrates that are broken down easily to give our body energy in the form of calories is always important for anyone's workout," says Baker Lemein. "I think the [pre-workouts] that include both carbs and that little bit of caffeine are likely living up to their claims better than others."

Still, there is science to back up the benefits. Pre-workout can improve your anaerobic power performance, according to a 2016 study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. ICYDK, anaerobic activity is anything performed at a high enough intensity (think all-out intervals) that your body can’t provide the necessary energy to complete it with oxygen intake alone. The body uses adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and glucose in the muscle cells for energy, which can last only 90 to 120 seconds.

Curious to know more? Read on for all the expert intel on timing your pre-workout and how much you should be taking.

How long does pre-workout last?

It's fair to want to optimize your sweat sesh, starting with when you take your pre-workout. On average, it might take five to 10 minutes before it kicks in, and it can last anywhere from two to three hours, says Judine St. Gerard, CPT, a NASM-certified personal trainer. "Just think of it like coffee," she adds. "If someone is going to work out at nine at night and wants to be in bed [before midnight], they might want to think twice about taking it."

Additionally, it's not the kind of supplement that will allow you to skip on other key components of progress, like getting a good night's rest. "People forget that caffeine doesn't replace sleep," says St. Gerard. "It can help you one day when you didn't get as much sleep as you wanted to the night before, but if you create a trend of not getting enough sleep, eventually the pre-workout won't be as effective."

The ingredients also play a role in how your body will react to pre-workout. "Most formulas are a mix of micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, and a little bit of caffeine," says Baker Lemein. "Some have nootropics included in them, too, and a few have carbohydrates."

After you sip this supp, she explains that carbs are first broken down in the mouth with an enzyme called salivary amylase before the stomach breaks them down further for absorption in the small intestines. This is also where most vitamins and minerals are processed, but they are not used for energy.

Meanwhile the key ingredient, caffeine, can give users a boost of energy fast because of the stimulant effect on your central nervous system. Just like a cup of coffee, it makes you feel more awake and alert. In fact, caffeine has been shown to "acutely enhance many aspects of exercise, including prolonged aerobic-type activities and brief duration, high-intensity exercise," according to a 2021 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

However, it's important to note that energy from calories isn't the same as energy from caffeine. "True sources of energy come from calories, which is what our body uses from food for energy to function," says Baker Lemein. "Caffeine does not have calories and will make you feel more awake but won't be used by your body to function." (Caffeine can't power up your muscles, for example.)

No two pre-workout supplements or people are alike, so there's no single answer to exactly how you may react to the mix and how long it takes to kick in, experts say. How you respond to coffee or other forms of caffeine can help predict, though. "Many pre-workout powders contain caffeine, so one's reaction to the stimulant in other foods or supplements could be a good indication of how you may feel," says Baker Lemein.

On the flip side, one ingredient that's worth avoiding is niacin, which is found in many pre-workouts. "If someone's not deficient in niacin or not used to adding extra niacin to their diet, they could get this flushed feeling that can be uncomfortable," notes St. Gerard.

How much pre-workout should I take?

In general, it's best practice to follow the recommended amount listed on the packaging. Each brand has a unique formula and safe dose, so there isn't a one-size-fits-all scoop rec.

That said, it's also important to never deviate from the dosage listed regardless of the duration or type of workout you're taking on. "I would heed caution on taking anything other than what is recommended," says Baker Lemein. "Oftentimes, we think just because something is over-the-counter and you don't need a prescription, that it's safe and can be used however and whenever, and that's inaccurate."

There's also the chance that you have a sensitivity to caffeine. If that's the case, then pre-workout may not be the best supplement for you at all, adds St. Gerard. If the dosage feels too intense, she suggests taking less than the listed serving size. Some common symptoms of a caffeine sensitivity include headaches, restless feelings, or shakiness, adds Baker Lemein.

For those who do rigorous training, it's a good idea to plan ahead with additional sources of fuel. You can try fruits, electrolyte drinks, or gels, says Baker Lemein. But if you're unsure about taking pre-workouts or any other supplement, talk to your healthcare team first.

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