We tried it: 5 pre-workout supplements worth considering

A fitness fanatic shares the products she doesn’t *need*, but really likes!

A fitness fanatic shares the products she doesn’t *need*, but really likes!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Not too long ago, a pre-workout handful of almonds, bowl of oatmeal or a banana were considered enough to tide you over and give your body enough fuel to perform. But now, with all the buzz about pre-workout supplements, many — myself included — wonder about their potential benefits. For the record, I probably fall into the category of fitness fanatic. I've always been athletic and it's been over a decade since I introduced workouts (of all kinds) into my daily routine. But I never took pre-workout supplements, or any kind of supplement, until this year. Maybe it was the constant chatter about their benefits at the gym or the massive marketing push the category has seen in recent years, but I gave in and began dabbling in pre-workouts and endurance supplements. 

The first lesson I learned is that supplements can be confusing and in this short period of time, I've tried countless pills, powders, drinks and chews. Some were major fails but a few gave me a substantial energy boost. I've narrowed down a list of my top five performers here, and I spoke with a dietitian and fitness expert for her insight on them as well.

Pre-workout supplements in a nutshell

"[A] pre-workout is a synthetically processed supplement marketed to exercise enthusiasts, which claims to boost performance, increase energy levels and muscular endurance during their workouts," says Joyce Asprec, a Toronto-based registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. Asprec explains that ingredients found in many pre-workout powders and chews can dilate blood vessels, which allows more blood to flow into the muscles during activity. "It can give the consumer the feeling that they are working harder, due to the increased focus and enhanced blood flow." 

In terms of when to take your pre-workout, Asprec recommends ingesting 15-30 minutes before you start your anaerobic (strength training) or aerobic (cardio-based) exercise — and that's for an added boost if you really want to push yourself in a workout or are about to take a particularly demanding class. She warns against taking a pre-workout daily because you could develop a tolerance, "which could lead consumers to increasing their serving past the recommended dose."

Pre-workout supplements often contain a mystery blend of ingredients ranging from caffeine to BCAAs (the benefits of which are much debated). "Their components are not standardized and can be a mash-up of whatever the producers wish to develop for their customers," says Asprec. In terms of common ingredients, a popular one is caffeine, which gives users an instant pick me up. "Some can contain amounts as high as 500 mg," says Asprec. "A cup (8 ounces) of coffee, by comparison, has about 95 mg." Other routine ingredients are glutamine, creatine, ginseng and guarana extract.

Here are five of my favourites and why:

Fitness supplements generally don't target yogis but this Canadian product does. Niyama Yoga Wellness makes plant-based supplements that are formulated specifically for yogis. I am not a yogi, but I've taken one scoop in my water bottle of this naturally berry-flavoured Green Energy Pre-Vinyasa Energizing supplement prior to several different styles of workouts (from reformer pilates to HIIT) and felt a noticeable difference in my energy levels. The formula is both caffeine and calorie-free and contains amino acids and green powders, "which may add additional micronutrients and antioxidant benefits to minimize the oxidative stress on the body during workouts," says Asprec.

Green Energy Pre-Vinyasa Energizer, $50, Niyama Yoga Wellness

I wake up at an absurd hour (4 am or 5 am) to fit in my workouts. Which usually means I don't have time to make a cup of coffee prior to leaving the house. Enter Canadian-owned Brüst. These tetra paks have been a major game-changer for me. Each one has a full cup of coffee that's been triple-filtered, making it super smooth. "It's a natural way to get a boost before working out versus from synthetically processed pre-workout powders," says Asprec. Plus, it has the added benefit of 20 g of clean New Zealand grass-fed protein. My favourite part? It doesn't taste grainy or chalky, which is what I find with most protein powders and shakes.

Grass-Fed Protein Cold-Brew Coffee, 12x 330 mL bottles, $47.88, Brüst

For folks training for marathon season, these packets came into my life at the perfect time, all thanks to Asprec's recommendation. Formulated to deliver carbohydrates (for energy), amino acids (for muscle protein synthesis) and antioxidants (to fight free-radicals), they pack a punch in each pouch. "The ingredients, even if ingested for pre-workout, can be utilized for muscle building and recovery as you complete your workout as well," adds Asprec. The formula comes in small packs, so they're easy to tip into a water bottle, shake and guzzle down. The taste was good and not overly flavoured.

PhytoSport Prepare & Endure, $69 for 20 stick, Arbonne

I may be a morning person who loves working out but I'm also exceptionally lazy. Although it only takes an extra minute or two, I didn't love the idea of mixing a pre-workout powder with water. But, just like anything, once I got into the routine of using BioSteel High Performance Sports Mix it was fine. I added two scoops (5 calories a scoop) to my water bottle in the morning, which is intended to be consumed before and during workouts. It claims to boost electrolytes and sustain energy without the use of sugar or caffeine. It also contains amino acids, minerals and a vitamin B complex. I used the powder consistently for a month and I did notice that I felt more hydrated and slightly more alert during my workouts and long runs. It reminded me of a healthier version of Gatorade, it even helped dull the occasional hangover.

High Performance Sports Mix, $29.99, BioSteel

Somewhat aggressive package aside, this stuff delivered on its promises of amplified energy, focus and enhanced endurance. Like most typical supplements, it comes in a bunch of random flavours, I tested blueberry lemonade and it was actually pretty tasty. Plus, the powder dissolved extremely fast. The contents of the mixture holds creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine, caffeine and a vitamin B complex. It doles out 30 servings and each scoop contains 33 calories and 175 mg of caffeine, which is a pretty high amount. I was apprehensive to try for that reason, fearing I'd suffer a post-workout crash but it never came.

Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre Workout, $36, Amazon

With all the buzz about pre-workout supplements does this mean you need to add one to your regime? No. But could you find it helpful? Maybe. Let us know in the comment section what pre-workout routine works best for you. 


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