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Powering through exercise sometimes takes extra fuel in your tank—and pre-workout supplements can provide just that.

But think before you drink. You need to know what’s just hype, what’s helpful and what’s harmful before taking pre-workout supplements to boost your performance.

Sorting out which ingredients to seek and which to shun is human performance dietitian Kim Lowry, RD, CSSD, LD, with Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute.

“You not only need to have the right ingredients but also the right dosage to get desired benefits,” Lowry says. “That’s where pre-workouts can fall short.”

Here’s what you need to know before boarding the supplement express.

Q: When are pre-workout supplements (PWS) useful?

A: You don’t need to consider one unless you’re exercising more than 90 minutes at once for endurance or for high-intensity training.

“The goal is the quick energy your muscles demand during such workouts,” she says. “You don’t need pre-workouts for yoga, Pilates, tai chi or low-intensity days.”

Q: How should you time pre-workout supplements?

A: Take them once daily at most and 30-60 minutes before high-intensity training or endurance sessions, Lowry says. “They should never replace meals and snacks in your day.”

Q: When are you better off with post-workout supplements?

A: “Pre- and post- workout supplements have different goals,” Lowry says. “With pre-workout supplements, you focus on getting your body ready to exercise at its best. The goal of post-workout supplements is recovery.” For that she recommends protein to help build muscle, and after an endurance workout, both protein and carbs.”

Q: Are these supplements lacking in fiber?

A: Yes, and that’s a good thing, Lowry says. “You don’t want high fiber before a workout because it could lead to gut distress. You want to spread fiber throughout your day.”

Q: What is essential when choosing any workout supplement?

A: “Only take supplements that are third-party tested,” Lowry warns.

Look on labels for NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice.

This is vital because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not review nutrition supplements, she says. Ingredients can be inconsistent from container to container.

Supplement makers also may hide ingredients behind the terms “proprietary” mix or blend.

They can list all ingredients in descending order, but you cannot see the exact dosage, so it can be misleading.

“Supplements that are not third-party tested could be tainted with steroids, which can cause anger, depression and thoughts of suicide,” she says. “They also could contain stimulants that could lead to a cardiac event.

“Anything that claims to solve a health issue or give overnight results also should raise a red flag.”

Q: What are some alternatives to a pre-workout supplement if you’re not comfortable taking one?

A: Lowry recommends half of a banana, dry cereal, a granola bar or pretzels at least a half-hour before your sweat session.

“If you haven’t eaten in the last 3-4 hours, you need to eat. Food is your most important fuel,” she says.

Q: What are common ingredients in a supplement, are they healthy or harmful and how much do you need of each?

A: The Breakdown

Lowry shares what you should seek and what you should shun:

Seek: Caffiene

What it does

“The ingredient responsible for most positive effects in a pre-workout supplement is caffeine,” Lowry says. “It can help improve your cognition and helps block some pain receptors, which helps you push through a workout.

How much you need

You need 3-6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, which is 300 mg for most average-sized people.

Is it safe?

“More isn’t better.” An excess can make you jittery, while hiking heart rate and blood pressure. If you’re prone to anxiety, caffeine may heighten it, and if you have heart issues, consult your cardiologist before adding caffeine via a supplement. Be wary of other heart-racing stimulants masquerading under other names within untested supplements. These include guarana, tyrosine, carnitine, choline, taurine and yerba mate.

Is there a better source?

“Most likely, you already consume enough caffeine in coffee,” she says. A tall Starbucks® yields 230 mg in 12 ounces.

Seek: Nitrates

What they do

Dietary nitrates help enhance blood flow, delivering oxygen to your muscles. This improves endurance and recovery time.

How much you need

Your tank needs 6-8 grams 60-90 minutes before your workout.

Are they safe?

Yes, they are as healthy when found in vegetables and beet juice. They are a risk for cancer when used as a preservative in processed lunch meats, hot dogs and bacon.

Is there a better source?

Choose veggies, which benefit you in a variety of ways.

Seek: Beta-alanine

What it does

This amino acid helps provide intense energy without the lactic-acid buildup that causes muscle fatigue during high-intensity workouts.

How much you need

You should get 4-6 grams daily for at least 2 weeks to gain benefits.

Is it safe

Yes, within the proper time frame and at the right amount. But there’s a catch: Some people may experience tingling or itching, which may not be worth the trade-off. Dialing back on beta-alanine can solve the problem.

Is there a better source?

Most people get enough of this amino acid in their diet, via poultry, fish and red meat.

Seek: Creatine

What it does

Creatine monohydrate is an amino acid that helps you amass muscle and strength, but it should be taken after your fitness bout, not before, Lowry says.

How much you need

You should start with 20 g daily for 5-7 days, and then 5 g post workout daily to maintain gains.

Is it safe?

Yes. It won’t harm you, though it can cause water retention.

Is there a better source?

One pound of raw beef or salmon provides 1-2 grams of creatine. Cod, tuna and lean chicken also have creatine.

Shun: B Vitamins

What they do

Not much, as a pre-workout booster. “They’re touted as aiding energy production, but they don’t help if you haven’t eaten,” Lowry says.

Are they safe?

High levels of these vitamins are unnecessary, though toxicity risk is low since they’re water-soluble.

Is there a better source?

Food is fuel. You get enough via balanced meals. Have a half of a banana, other fruit, yogurt, dry cereal, pretzels or a granola bar instead.

Shun: DMAA

What it does

DMAA stands for 1,3 Dimethylamylamine. “DMAA is a stimulant equivalent to amphetamines, aka speed, which is illegal,” she says.

Is it safe?

No! It is banned by the FDA. “While it may be touted as a ‘natural’ stimulant it’s not legal for a reason,” Lowry says.

Is there a better source?

Stick to coffee.

Shun: Ginseng and Guarana

What they do

These ingredients found in energy drinks artificially hike alertness. As for claims that they are anti-inflammatory, “there is no sound research that it strengthens your immune system,” she says.

Are they safe?

Not for some people: It can make your heart race.

Is there a better source?

You’ll perform better after a good night’s sleep—which you may not get if you take a concoction containing ginseng.

The Bottom Line

“If a supplement is not third-party tested it could be tainted with illegal substances, and if you’re training for competition, you risk being booted,” Lowry says. 

A balanced diet and better sleep habits may be your best pre-workout booster.

You exercise to be healthy and strong. So, play it safe.

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