As we round off our recent Derby in the Kitchen series on sports supplementation, I’m here to taste- and experience-test a few different pre-workout formulae, so you don’t have to!
[Because really, when else will I have a chance to offer my (live) body up for science and experimentation? Might as well do it for you guys, right?!]
As a refresher from Lilith NoFair’s original post on pre-training supplements:
“Generally, a pre-workout will contain:
- A Stimulant (Caffeine, yohimbine, synephrine, dendrobium, sugar, etc.) for energy
- Beta Alanine (an amino acid) to help reduce lactic acid, which lets you train harder and longer
- Arginine (another amino acid) or Nitric Oxide to dilate blood vessels, delivering oxygen to your muscles faster and giving you a “pump”
- Vitamins C & B to help with metabolic stress, reduce inflammation and help produce energy
- Electrolytes to keep you hydrated, and keep your muscles working”
“A good pre-workout will use more than one type of stimulant to avoid burn-out. Make sure you’re buying a brand that releases all of its ingredients on the label – don’t fall for “proprietary blends.”
“Stimulants work – your body will react to clear the substance, which raises your heart rate and blood pressure, and sharpens your mental focus. Electrolytes will help to keep you hydrated so that you can perform longer, and the various amino acids will either give you a pump or help keep you pumping.
“That said, there can be drawbacks. Frequent side effects include jitters, digestive upset, and a feeling of over-stimulation.”
Here’s the abbreviated summary of my trials:
- You will not drink these because they taste good. Fact.
- I discovered that I love these products for morning workouts, and they don’t seem to do damage to my sleep if I take them at dinner time.
- Beta-alanine produces a freaky, prickly-skin feeling that might be too annoying or disconcerting for some.
- Vega produced mild to possibly negative results; others seemed productive, but wouldn’t stand up to a three-hour practice.
I decided to try Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer first.
This appeared to be the most, uh, ‘benign’ of the group, containing fewer stimulants than the others – just 100mg of caffeine via green tea, and none of the amino acids the other pre-pump products tend to offer. All the ingredients are pronounceable, and predictably sound like something you’d find in the health food aisle, like ginseng, brown rice syrup, and kombucha leaf.
Price: available on Vega’s website as a 19 oz/ 30 serving tub in Lemon-Lime and Acai Berry, for $49.99 US (=$1.67/serving) or in single serve sachets for $2.49 each.
Taste: Here’s the part where I have to tell you that I didn’t like the taste of ANY of the products that I tried; and that every Vega product I’ve ever tried has a disconcerting ‘dirt’ taste for me, with the Energizer in Lemon Lime being no exception. However, after trying all the rest, I’d say the Vega was definitely the least offensive of the bunch, keeping the sugary sweetness to a manageable gatorade-like level.
Performance: As instructed, I dumped the single-serving packet into 1 cup of water about 20 minutes before my workout. In this case, the workout was actually a bout, as I was subbing in for Toronto’s Smoke City Betties team for a bout against nearby Fergus. I didn’t notice any significant positive or negative effects through the first half of the game. However, I did feel really energized coming out after halftime, and I did attribute it to the Vega, simply because there wasn’t any real other psychological or physical issue that I was aware of that would give me that boost feeling.
Unfortunately, about halfway through the second half, I actually began to feel light-headed on the bench, and had to request sitting out a jam, which is very, very, very rare for me. I also chalked this up to the Vega, although I can’t confirm that of course!
Verdict: The delayed / sustained performance boost claims seem accurate, and in fact for me were a little too delayed. Hard to say if my temporary wooziness was a result of the product, or just the summer heat. I would recommend experimenting before trying it on bout day. Vega may be a good option for people who want to test the waters without going too hardcore on the stimulants – or for vegan athletes with deep pockets.
Next up: Fitmiss Ignite Women’s Pre-Workout + Energy Booster, in the terrifying-sounding Strawberry Margarita flavour.
I have a particular hate on for products making dubious gender claims. Their website claims that men’s (or, presumably, non-gendered) pre-workout potions are designed to pack on muscle, which (in their marketing language at least) isn’t what women want. Apparently we just want to BURN FAT, ladies!! RIGHT?! This product also came with the most — and the most disconcerting — warning labels of any of them, including “do not consume synephrine or caffeine from other sources” including coffee (oops…) and “do not use for more than eight weeks.” Yikes! Good to know: this product line is made by Muscle Pharma.
Nutrition Facts label: click here Unfortunately, because this product uses a “proprietary” blend, they provide no information on how much caffeine, beta-alanine, or other ingredients are in a single serving. It does, however, provide 1300% of your daily Vitamin B6.
Price: A 30-serving tub of powder runs $34.99 US, while a box of 28 single-serve sachets costs the same, making this product the most affordable if you like the convenience of the on-the-go version, at just $1.25 per single-serve. There are five flavours in the tub, but only grape and orange in the single-serve.
Taste: While I like the *idea* of getting hammered on Strawberry Margaritas and then trying to do a workout, this tasted more like cotton candy with a hint of lime. It created a truly magical cloudy pink colour unlike anything nature ever intended, and it was mouth-puckeringly, blindingly sweeeeeeeet! Just like us gals, right?? At least this product recommended 14 to 20 ounces of water for mixing (about double the other products’ recommended ratio), which did help to thin it out a touch. The taste of sucralose (main ingredient in Splenda – aka calorie-free sweetener) was very noticeable.
Performance: I tried the Ignite on for size prior to a 6 pm gym workout, where I did a six minute stationary bike warmup, some core moves, some leg press and pull-ups, and then two rounds of the Get Schooled workout. WHY ARE MY ARMS AND HANDS PRICKLY? WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME? … was my internal monologue, but I stuck it out. It turns out this very disconcerting prickly-skin feeling would happen about 20-30 minutes after consuming each of the products I tried besides the Vega. Lilith NoFair assured me this is a side effect of the Beta-Alanine and not a great concern if I can tolerate it.
Despite all the scary warning labels, I did not feel uncomfortably “jazzed” or jittery, and I didn’t really notice any particular effects besides the crawly-skin issue through my workout. I did notice, however, that despite over an hour in the gym, and that killer Get Schooled HIIT workout, I did not feel exhausted after the workout was over. Also a big positive: I slept OK, which was a worry since I normally don’t consume coffee after midday as it tends to ruin my night’s sleep.
Verdict: Horrible sickly-sweet taste and gender pandering was overcome by reasonable benefits! I would, however, attempt one of their other flavours instead.
Contestant #3 – C4 Pre-Workout, by Cellucor. When I went to two local supplement shops seeking samples of both this and the Vega product, the staff at both shops stopped me to make sure I knew just how opposite ends of the spectrum these two products were! I assured them it was for science…
Nutrition facts label: click here.
Note: It appears this product, and the sample I got, used to be called “C4 Extreme” but is now “C4 Pre-Workout: Explosive Energy,” not to be confused with other versions of the C4 product line available from Cellucor.
Price: A 30-serving tub sets you back $39.99 US, although this option also comes in a gym-rat-sized 60-serving vat for $59.99 ($1.33 and $1.00 per serving, respectively).
Taste: This Fruit Punch sample came in a “handy” two-serving packet, with no mechanism for measuring a single serving. I guessed and used one teaspoon in the recommended 4-6oz. of water, creating an un-drinkably-sweet opaque mixture (pictured). I quickly added more water to get through it, producing some childhood nostalgia over watered down Kool-Aid, which wasn’t too bad. (Disclaimer: Fruit Punch is my least favourite flavour of any beverage. I usually go for “blue” or “purple” flavours). C4’s other flavours have super-jazzy names like Berry Bomb and Orange Dreamsicle. They also took a page from Fitmiss and have a Strawberry Margarita flavour (what IS it with these people and the booze in the waterbottle?).
Performance: I knocked back my electric pink bevvie at 7am before a morning workout. I love my super-strong daily Americano, but I don’t like to force one down quickly, first thing, on an empty stomach. With 150mg of caffeine plus the Vitamin B and other science-y ingredients, the C4 gave me some great pep first thing, and helped lift the sleepy a.m. fog, which I loved. In fact, after trying a couple of these before morning workouts, I may now be hooked! My workout included some core training and the All-Star Rocket Legs workout. I did notice that I had juice left in my legs even at the very end of all those damn lunge jumps, which are the hardest exercise for me. However – as with the Fitmiss Ignite, I had that weird prickly feeling in my forearms and hands for the first 10 minutes or so of my workout.
Verdict: Relatively affordable, tolerable flavour when diluted, and produced a noticeable benefit at the end of an hour or so in the gym!
My final experiment was Gold Standard Pre-Workout from Optimum Nutrition.This one contains the highest caffeine dose, at 175mg per serving, and has 3g of Creatine to C4’s 1g. Basically, it seemed like the grand-daddy of them all, so I left it to the end.
Nutrition Facts: Click here
Price: At $29.99 for a 30-serving tub, this one is the most affordable, coming in at just $1.00 per serving. Comes in a variety of fruit flavours.
Taste: Like C4, this sample was two servings, with no measurement guidance for consuming only one. I eyeballed it. Their product sales page indicates that some people might be into taking two servings at once for “Extreme” results. The taste was virtually identical to the C4 fruit punch, and also required additional watering down to quell the initial sugar-gag reflex.
Performance: I drank my go-go-juice on the way to my first full practice back after my calf injury 2 months ago. I was already feeling a little jazzed from an early afternoon coffee, and was nervous about having more caffeine so late in the day. I definitely felt buzzy by the time I got my skates on! The prickly skin phenomenon was similar to the other products’ effects. This was a super tough practice for me – it was a B-team practice for 2 hours, followed by an hour of scrimmaging CN Power, Toronto’s charter team (who are currently peaking ahead of their trip to D1s in Omaha next weekend). Needless to say, pre-workout or not, I was definitely a shell of my former self by the end of the three hour session! I did take electrolytes (no carbs though) throughout practice, but was still spent and sore by the end. This would have probably been a good time to try the two-serving approach, but dilute it into my water bottle and consume it over the course of practice, with some juice or other carbohydrate mixed in for better sustained energy. One of my teammates really notices a benefit from having additional food and pre-workout mix half way through practice, but she does end up staying up late afterward.
I fell asleep easily and on a reasonable schedule after getting home, showering, and foam rolling like it was my job. I did not sleep well though – my body was very sore, so it’s hard to say whether the caffeine was the culprit or not.
Gold Standard contains a substantial amount of creatine, which Lilith NoFair tells us works best for improved explosive muscle contractions and better muscle recovery when supplemented on a regular basis. So I might have seen a better result and felt better the next day if this was day ten of taking it, rather than day one.
Verdict: This product produced a noticeable energy spike, tasted only slightly horrible, and is the most affordable of the bunch. Questionable for late night use if you don’t sleep with caffeine. Seems to be designed for weight lifting, not endurance, so choose wisely for your longer on-skate sessions or steady state cardio. I would definitely try this again for morning strength or HIIT workouts.