Working out is hard — that’s the whole point. So we understand if you’re staring down the day’s workout thinking how am I going to get through this? and looking for something to give you a little extra energy to make it through. If you lift in the morning, that something may be a preworkout supplement with a huge dose of caffeine. But what if you’re heading to the gym in the evening, and you don’t want to mess up your sleep in a few hours?
This is the reason why “stim-free” preworkout exists. It’s a supplement you mix with water to make a (theoretically) energy boosting drink that’s stimulant-free — specifically, caffeine free — so you can take it in the evening. At that point, though, you’re removing the most powerful ingredient from the mix and still expecting it to give you a mental or physical boost. And here’s where I think we need a little reality check.
What does preworkout actually do for you?
This will shock some of you whipper-snappers, but in the olden days there was no such thing as preworkout. You might eat or drink something before your workout, but the idea of a preworkout powder was invented by supplement companies, who began aggressively marketing it to caffeine-obsessed young people roughly 15 years ago.
What’s in it? We have a basic breakdown here. The main active ingredient is caffeine. Caffeine really does wake you up, boost performance a bit, and enhance your ability to focus on a task. This is why it’s popular among athletes and office workers alike. Caffeine-containing preworkout will have a similar effect as drinking a big cup of coffee on your way to the gym.
Take the caffeine out of a preworkout product and you aren’t left with much. That’s not to say there’s nothing in stim-free preworkouts. They typically have citrulline, which can increase blood flow and may give a slight bump to athletic performance. Another common ingredient is beta-alanine, which may slightly increase endurance and can also make your skin feel tingly or itchy. The mix may also contain vitamins, amino acids, plant extracts, and other ingredients without any significant, proven short-term benefits for athletic performance. In other words: You’ll be fine without it.
What you actually need before your workout
The reason I’m writing about stim-free preworkouts is not because they’re great or terrible (they’re fine, whatever). It’s because I keep seeing people wander onto forums like Reddit asking for help in selecting “the best stim-free preworkout,” or asking what kind of preworkout they should drink for an evening gym session, as if this were a critical question and gains hang in the balance. My friends, you don’t need any of it.
Drinking (or, sigh, dry-scooping) preworkout has become a ritual for many. It’s part of getting ready for the gym, just like lacing up your shoes or putting on your pump-up playlist. But the stuff in the preworkout isn’t doing much for you. If you’re curious about whether you’d benefit from the effects of beta-alanine or citrulline, feel free to research those supplements and choose a product that contains them. But more often, the question people are really trying to answer is, “how can I feel ready for the gym when I’m already kind of tired?”
A snack is a hell of a performance booster
This is where I implore you to consider the humble carb. During intense exercise, carbs are a major energy source for our muscles. This can include blood glucose, as well as the stored carbs, called glycogen, that we keep in our muscles.
If you haven’t eaten for a few hours, your blood sugar is on the lower side and you may not have much glycogen in your muscles. If you’re heading to the gym after work, and you plan to eat dinner afterward, you’ll be shocked by how much better you feel if you have a little snack.
We have some ideas here for the best pre-workout (as in, before-the-workout) breakfasts. They work just as well in the evening. A banana or a granola bar are classic options. But really anything with carbs will do. Carbohydrates — including sugars and starches — have long been recognised as important for sports performance, especially in endurance sports like running and cycling.
There’ is increasing evidence that pre-workout carbs can lead to better gym sessions for lifters as well, especially the workout is long and if you haven’t had a meal in a few hours. This isn’t a new idea for lifters: the powerlifter stereotype includes walking around with a gym bag full of candy, and this is exactly why. Want a real workout performance hack? You can buy Sour Patch Kids by the pound.
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