The 12 Best Pre-Workout Foods and Supplements of 2022, According to a Dietitian

Quaker Oats Instant Oatmeal is a quick source of easily digested carbohydrates

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Pre-workout food and supplements can help support training and performance by providing fuel, hydration, and other potentially beneficial ingredients like caffeine. What and how much you need to eat before a workout depends on a variety of factors, including the type of workout, your training or performance goals, when and what you last ate, and hydration status. 

“In general, a pre-workout supplement should have easy-to-digest carbs since they are the primary fuel source for exercise. A pre-workout supplement may also have electrolytes to help with hydration and caffeine to enhance performance, although these are both nice-to-haves rather than necessities,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, founder of Greenletes and author of Planted Performance. It’s also recommended to limit fat, fiber, and, in some cases, protein before a workout, as these may increase risk of gastrointestinal upset, especially for high-intensity and endurance exercise. 

Low-fiber carbohydrate foods work well for most people, though supplements may be a helpful and convenient option for some. However, many pre-workout supplements contain unnecessary and potentially even harmful ingredients, so it’s best to look for supplements that are third-party tested and contain ingredients supported by research. To choose the best workout foods and supplements, our dietitian used her clinical experience as well as recommendations from three dietitians who specialize in working with all types of athletes.

Verywell Fit Approved Pre-Workout Food and Supplements

  • Best Overall: Quaker Instant Oatmeal provides the carbohydrates you need for your workout, is convenient on the go, and can be customized to your flavor and nutrient preferences.
  • Best With ProteinStonyfield Organic Probiotic Protein Smoothie provides a good balance of carbohydrates and protein in a liquid form that can be taken before a workout. It provides 30 grams of carbohydrates and 9 grams of protein.

Always speak with a healthcare professional before adding a supplement to your routine to ensure that the supplement is appropriate for your individual needs and which dosage to take.

Are Pre-Workout Food and Supplements Beneficial?

“Pre-workout fueling is dependent on the activity, the individual, and the amount of time between eating and beginning the activity,” says Jennifer O’Donnel-Giles, MS, RD, CSSD, who works with athletes. The following groups of people will benefit most from pre-workout foods or supplements. 

  • Early-morning exercisers. If you’re exercising first thing in the morning, eating something with easily digested carbohydrates can improve your energy and performance and reduce time to fatigue. Caffeine may also support performance, especially for endurance activities. “You never want to go into a workout on an empty stomach since food is the main fuel source for energy,” says Rizzo.
  • Endurance athletes. Endurance athletes exercising 2-3 hours per day most days of the week have higher carbohydrate needs and consuming additional carbohydrates before a workout can enhance both training and recovery.
  • Athletes at risk for low blood sugar. If you are prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or take insulin, diabetes medications, or other medications to manage blood sugar, consuming some carbohydrates before a workout can help avoid drops in blood sugar that can be dangerous. Also, if you're prone to hypoglycemia, it may be beneficial to consume pre-workout carbohydrates closer to 15 minutes before exercise.
  • People who haven’t eaten in several hours. If it’s been more than a few hours since your last meal, you may benefit from a pre-workout snack or supplement to provide the carbohydrates you need for your workout, especially if you are already feeling hungry. 

Who May Not Benefit from Certain Pre-Workout Food and Supplements

“Every athlete should fuel before workouts. Your body is your engine, and it requires fuel not only to do the work you want it to do but also to prevent muscle breakdown and promote recovery,” says O’Donnell-Giles. However, if you’re eating adequate calories and carbohydrates throughout the day, you may not need anything extra prior to a workout, especially if your workout is less than 60 minutes or is low intensity.  

In addition, many supplements that are marketed to eat or drink pre-workout contain ingredients that are not well supported in the research to actually benefit your workout. Keep in mind supplements may be problematic or not work for some people. 

  • People with underlying health conditions or taking certain medications. Many pre-workout supplements contain ingredients—such greens powder, antioxidants, or adaptogenic herbs—that may interact with some medications. If you’re considering a pre-workout supplement, always talk to your healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe for you.
  • People who are sensitive to caffeine. Pre-workout supplements that contain high doses of caffeine may increase anxiety in some people. It may also interrupt sleep if taken too late in the day.
  • People with digestive problems. Some athletes, especially for sports where there may be more jostling, like running and swimming, may experience digestive upset when they consume something too close to exercise. This may be even more problematic in those with digestive disorders. While fuel is still important, finding a food or supplement that works for you can take some trial and error. If you’re struggling to find something that works for you, working closely with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition can be helpful. 

Here are the best pre-workout foods and supplements.

Best Overall: Quaker Oats Instant Oatmeal

Quaker Oats instant oats

Amazon

Pros
  • Quickly digesting carbs

  • Customizable for flavor options

  • Good source of iron

Cons
  • Not suitable for gluten-free diet due to potential cross-contamination

Quaker Oats instant oatmeal packets are our top choice for a pre-workout food because they contain quickly digesting carbs and are convenient, budget-friendly, travel-friendly, and a great blank slate to customize to your exact pre-workout needs. If you have less than an hour before your workout, these packets can be perfect for a quick carb boost. You only need some hot water (or milk) to mix with the packet to make oatmeal. If you have a longer workout planned, you can add a banana and a little brown sugar for additional carbohydrates. If you have a longer time to digest your food, you may want to add a little nut butter or some nuts for longer-lasting energy.

These oats are also an excellent source of iron, with 7.8 milligrams per packet serving. Athletes, especially female athletes, are at higher risk of iron deficiency than non-athletes, and we like that Quaker oats can help you meet your iron needs.

Price at time of publication: $22 ($1.86 per serving)

Serving size: 1 packet (28 grams) | Calories: 100 | Protein: 4 grams | Carbohydrates: 18 grams |  Fat: 2 grams | Fiber: 3 grams | Other notable nutrients: Iron

Best With Protein: Stonyfield Organic Probiotic Protein Smoothie Peach

Stonyfield Organic Probiotic Protein Smoothie Peach

Stonyfield

Pros
  • Contains adequate carbs and moderate protein

  • USDA Organic ingredients

  • Good for on-the-go

Cons
  • Not suitable for those with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance

Stonyfield Organic Probiotic Protein Smoothies are a convenient and delicious way to get the nutrients you need to support your workout. With 30 grams of carbohydrates per bottle, they are a great option for those planning a longer workout (60 minutes or greater) or for early morning exercisers who need an easily digestible mini breakfast before heading out the door. They also contain 9 grams of protein, which may support post-workout recovery and help keep your energy stable during your workout. 

Stonyfield Organic probiotic protein smoothies also provide other important nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. They contain 135 milligrams of sodium, which may also support electrolyte balance during your workout. As the name suggests, we also like that this smoothie provides a source of gut-healthy probiotics.

While they do contain 16 grams of added sugar, evidence suggests that some added sugar before a workout may actually support performance. Take into consideration how it fits into your total daily intake and nutrition needs.

Price at time of publication: $1.89 per serving

Serving size: 1 smoothie | Calories: 180 | Protein: 9 grams | Carbohydrates: 30 grams |  Fat: 3 grams | Fiber: 0 grams | Other notable nutrients: Calcium, vitamin D, potassium, sodium

Best Budget: Cheerios Honey Nut Cheerios

Honey Nut Cheerios

Amazon

Pros
  • Quickly digesting carbohydrates

  • Low-fiber and fat

  • Gluten-free

Cons
  • Not vegan

Pre-workout food in the cereal aisle? You bet. Honey Nut Cheerios is an easily accessible, convenient, and budget-friendly way to fuel your workout at any time of day. With 30 grams of quickly digested carbohydrates per cup, a quick bowl or handful of Honey Nut Cheerios gives you the energy you need for training. Because it’s a low-fiber, low-fat, and low-protein food, Honey Nut Cheerios works well for most types of exercise, from running or high-intensity workouts to strength training.

One cup of Honey Nut Cheerios also contains 210 milligrams of sodium, which can be helpful in maintaining adequate sodium levels during exercise, especially for longer efforts in warmer weather. One serving contains 12 grams of added sugar, which some people may prefer to limit. However, sugar and refined carbohydrates have been shown to be helpful before and during exercise, especially for endurance and ultra-endurance athletes. If you prefer a no-added sugar version, regular Cheerios can also be a good option.

Price at time of publication: $5 ($0.34 per serving)

Serving size: 1 cup (28 grams) | Calories: 140 | Protein: 3 grams | Carbohydrates: 30 grams |  Fat: 2 grams | Fiber: 3 grams | Other notable nutrients: Iron, vitamin D, B vitamins, zinc

Best Smoothie: Splendid Spoon Carrot Ginger Smoothie

Splendid Spoon Carrot Ginger Smoothie

Splendid Spoon

Pros
  • Made with whole foods

  • Portable

  • Allergen-friendly

Cons
  • Expensive

  • Subscription service

For early mornings, or when you need a little energy boost right before a workout, Splendid Spoon Carrot Ginger Smoothies can give you what you need. The 18 grams of carbohydrates per serving (or 35 grams per bottle) come from fruits, carrot juice, and dates. Pea protein contributes a small amount of protein, which may slow digestion just enough to help sustain energy for your workout. Note that drinking the whole bottle provides 5 grams of fiber, which may cause gastrointestinal upset for some when drunk close to the start of an endurance workout.

We also like that this smoothie contains ginger. One small study suggests when consumed pre-workout, ginger may reduce post-exercise soreness. It’s also packed with nutrients, including potassium and sodium, which can support electrolyte balance from sweat loss and help you meet your daily vitamin and mineral needs.

Price at time of publication: $7-8 depending on meal plan

Serving size: 1 bottle | Calories: 170 | Protein: 7 grams | Carbohydrates: 35 grams | Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 5 grams | Other notable nutrients: Sodium, vitamin C, potassium

Best for On-the-Go: Gogo Squeez Apple Apple

Gogo Squeez Apple Apple

Amazon

Pros
  • Quickly digesting carbohydrates

  • Portable

  • Vegan and allergy-friendly

Cons
  • Not enough calories or carbohydrates for longer workouts

Applesauce pouches aren’t just for kids. They’re an incredibly convenient source of easily digested carbohydrates perfect for any athlete on the go. Because they don’t require refrigeration, you can keep them in your bag, at your desk, or in your pantry for quick fuel before your workout.

With 70 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates, it’s a good option in the 15 to 30 minutes right before a workout for a quick energy boost. If you’re working out for longer than an hour, you’ll likely benefit from additional carbohydrates from something like a banana or a handful of raisins.

Gogo Squeez also comes in apple cinnamon flavor, and these packets are vegan, allergy-friendly, and don’t contain any added sugars.

Price at time of publication: $14 ($0.76 per serving)

Serving size: 1 pouch | Calories: 70 | Protein: 0 grams | Carbohydrates: 16 grams |  Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 3 grams | Other notable nutrients: Potassium

Best for Endurance Exercise: Dave’s Killer Bread Plain Awesome Bagels

Dave’s Killer Bread Plain Awesome Bagels

Walmart

Pros
  • Higher carbohydrate content with moderate protein

  • USDA Organic and non-GMO ingredients

  • Made with whole grains

Cons
  • Not gluten-free

When you’re planning a longer training session, consuming a significant source of carbohydrates paired with a moderate amount of protein can improve performance, reduce time to fatigue, and enhance recovery. Dave’s Killer Bread Plain Awesome Bagels are a top choice for their balance of carbohydrates and protein (which comes from whole grains) without too much fiber or fat. They also contain 410 milligrams of sodium, which can help offset the sodium that you will lose in sweat during your training.

If you can tolerate a little bit of fat before a workout (always test it out during training), you can top your bagel with a small amount of your favorite nut or seed butter. Or, you can use a low-fat cream cheese or jam for a topping that may be a little easier on the digestive system. If you prefer something with a little more flavor, these bagels also come in everything and cinnamon raisin flavors.

Price at time of publication: $5 ($0.97 per serving)

Serving size: 1 bagel | Calories: 260 | Protein: 11 grams | Carbohydrates: 48 grams |  Fat: 3 grams | Fiber: 3 grams | Other notable nutrients: Sodium, iron

Best With Caffeine: Fuel for Fire Fruit and Protein Smoothie Coffee

Fuel for Fire Fruit and Protein Smoothie Coffee

Amazon

Pros
  • Contains 70 milligrams caffeine per serving

  • Fruit is main ingredient

  • Suitable for gluten-free, soy-free, and Kosher diets

Cons
  • May not be enough carbohydrates for some athletes

  • Not suitable for dairy-free or vegan diets

Fuel for Fire Fruit and Protein smoothies are not only a convenient way to consume carbs and protein before your workout, but the coffee flavor is a great option for those that want the benefits of caffeine—but don’t love coffee. In addition to containing 17 grams of carbohydrates from bananas, this smoothie also has 10 grams of protein from whey protein isolate, a type of protein that’s known to support strength training.   

Evidence suggests that caffeine, especially when paired with carbohydrates, can improve performance in endurance training. Results are mixed on whether it will help before strength training, but a little energy boost may be enough to help you get through your session with more energy. This smoothie contains 70 milligrams of caffeine per serving, which is more than a cup of green tea but less than an 8-ounce cup of coffee.

Price at time of publication: $47 ($3.93 per serving)

Serving size: 1 pouch | Calories: 110 | Protein: 10 grams | Carbohydrates: 17 grams |  Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 0 grams | Other notable nutrients: Potassium

Best Powder: KLEAN Athlete Pre-workout

KLEAN Athlete Pre-workout

Amazon

Pros
  • NSF Certified for Sport

  • Contains 75 milligrams of caffeine

  • Contains beetroot extract

Cons
  • Only 7 grams of carbs per scoop

  • Some may not like taste of stevia

KLEAN Athlete’s Pre-workout powder adds two potentially beneficial compounds to your pre-workout routine: beetroot extract and caffeine. Beetroot extract, which contains nitrates from beets, has been shown to improve performance and reduce time to exhaustion in endurance athletes. However, it's worth noting most beetroot and exercise studies have a small sample size and only studied in a short time frame. The best timing of beetroot extract before—or after—exercise also needs further clarification.

In addition to potential benefits from beetroot extract, this powder also contains caffeine. “Caffeine helps with muscular endurance, movement velocity, and muscular strength, primarily in endurance training,” says Jonathan Valdez, MBA, RDN, CDN, CCM, CDCES, ACE-CPT, Owner of Genki Nutrition. If you are sensitive to caffeine, this supplement may not be the best choice for your needs.

With only 7 grams of carbohydrates per scoop, this pre-workout powder may lack the carbohydrates you need to support exercise (this is common among pre-workout powders). However, you can mix it into a smoothie with fruit for additional carbohydrates or drink it alongside another carb-heavy food like toast or a banana if you haven’t eaten a meal that contains carbohydrates in the last couple of hours. 

It’s NSF Certified for Sport, which is a rigorous third-party certification that ensures it doesn’t contain any harmful contaminants or banned substances and contains the ingredient amounts listed on the label. It’s vegan, gluten-free, and free of artificial flavors and colors. It is sweetened with stevia, and some may not like the way this sweetener tastes.

Price at time of publication: $43 ($2.13 per serving)

Serving size: 1 scoop | Calories: 30 | Protein: 0 grams | Carbohydrates: 1 grams | Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 0 grams | Other notable nutrients: Vitamin C, sodium, nitrates

Best With Creatine: Ladder Strawberry Lemonade Pre-Workout

Ladder Strawberry Lemonade Pre-Workout

Amazon

Pros
  • NSF Certified for Sport

  • Suitable for vegan and gluten-free diets

  • No artificial colors or flavors

Cons
  • Only 6 grams carbohydrates per scoop

  • Some ingredients don't have strong research

Ladder pre-workout powder is an NSF Certified for Sport powder that may help support your workout. It contains 5 grams of creatine monohydrate. This form of creatine has been shown to be a safe and effective nutrition supplement to enhance training performance and increase lean muscle mass. It also contains beta-alanine, which may also improve performance. Beta-alanine is considered safe for most healthy people at the recommended dose of 4 to 6 grams daily or less. At high doses, beta-alanine does come with the potential side effect of something called paresthesia, which is a tingling sensation of the skin. It’s also important to note that neither beta-alanine nor creatine needs to be taken specifically before a workout to experience potential benefits. 

For those looking for a higher dose of caffeine, Ladder pre-workout also contains 200 milligrams of caffeine (about the amount in a 16-ounce cup of brewed coffee), which may enhance performance as well. However, if you are sensitive to caffeine, you may not appreciate this level of caffeine in this pre-workout powder. It's important to note Ladder pre-workout also contains other ingredients, such as l-citrulline and l-theanine, and the potential benefits of these substances have shown mixed results in research.

This supplement is gluten-free, vegan, and contains a small amount (75 milligrams) of sodium, which may help with electrolyte balance. Like other pre-workout powders, it’s very low in carbohydrates, with only 6 grams, which is not enough to support your workout needs, especially for longer endurance workouts. In this case, you may want to combine it with another source of carbohydrates.

Price at time of publication: $56 ($1.87 per serving)

Serving size: 1 scoop | Calories: 60 | Protein: 0 grams | Carbohydrates: 6 grams | Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 0 grams | Other notable nutrients: None

Best Energy Chew: Skratch Labs Blueberry Sport Energy Chews

Skratch Labs Blueberry Sport Energy Chews

Amazon

Pros
  • Portable

  • Contains 50 milligrams caffeine

  • Contains easily digested carbohydrates

Cons
  • May not be enough carbohydrates for some athletes

Skratch Lab sport energy chews are a convenient way to consume carbohydrates and caffeine before a workout, especially for those that aren’t feeling hungry or can’t stomach a meal. “I love Skratch Labs Energy Chews with caffeine for an intense activity, like a long run or swim. The extra boost of caffeine helps with long bouts of endurance,” says Rizzo.

Five chews contain 19 grams of carbohydrates, which may be enough before a short workout that’s moderate intensity, though you may need more for longer, more intense workouts. Each pack contains two servings, so you can easily adjust your dose as needed. Note this may take some trial and error to determine what amount works best for you before a workout.

Price at time of publication: $24 ($1.20 per 5 chew serving)

Serving size: 5 chews | Servings per container: 2 | Calories: 80 | Protein: 0 grams | Carbohydrates: 19 grams | Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 0 grams | Other notable nutrients: Sodium, caffeine

Best Bar: Picky Bar Smooth Caffeinator

Picky Bar Smooth Caffeinator

Amazon

Pros
  • Adequate carbs and moderate protein

  • Allergen-friendly

  • Many flavor options

  • Lower risk of stomach discomfort

Cons
  • Lower dose of caffeine

Picky Bars are designed for athletes, by athletes. With 24 grams of carbohydrates from a mix of dates, dried fruit, and brown rice syrup, they give you the carbohydrates you need to fuel your workouts. They also contain a moderate amount of protein—6 grams—which may support your recovery needs. 

Picky Bars come in a variety of mouthwatering flavors, but the Smooth Caffeinator is our pick for before your workout because it gives you a little dose of caffeine (from coffee). This amount of caffeine is less than other caffeinated options, so it may work best for those looking for a lower caffeine amount. These bars are vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free, and were designed with the goal of reducing digestive upset on the run, making them another reason we love them as a pre-workout option.

Price at time of publication: $27 ($2.70 per serving)

Serving size: 1 bar (45 grams) | Calories: 180 | Protein: 6 grams | Carbohydrates: 24 grams | Fat: 8 grams | Fiber: 2 grams | Other notable nutrients: Caffeine, iron, potassium

Best for Right Before a Workout: Natural Delights Fresh Medjool Pitted Dates

Natural Delights Fresh Medjool Pitted Dates

Amazon

Pros
  • Portable

  • Good source of easily digested carbohydrates

  • Easily adjust dose

Cons
  • No caffeine or sodium

Need some energy right before you head out the door? Natural Delights fresh Medjool dates are a low-fiber source of carbohydrates that can be consumed minutes before you start your workout. In fact, many athletes consume dates during training because they are so well tolerated. Each date contains around 15-20 grams of carbohydrates (depending on the size), so depending on how long you plan to exercise, you may want to consume anywhere from one to four prior to starting exercise, depending on your needs. We also like that dates provide trace amounts of vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, B vitamins, potassium, and calcium.

For those that need or prefer a little more substance, you can “stuff” them with a teaspoon or two of nut or seed butter.

Price at time of publication: $10 ($1.43 per serving)

Serving size: 2-3 dates (46 grams) | Calories: 140 | Protein: 1 grams | Carbohydrates: 33 grams | Fat: 0 grams | Fiber: 4 grams | Other notable nutrients: Calcium, iron, potassium

How We Select Supplements 

Our team works hard to be transparent about why we recommend certain supplements; you can read more about our dietary supplement methodology here

We support supplements that are evidence-based and rooted in science. We value certain product attributes that we find to be associated with the highest quality products. We prioritize products that are third-party tested and certified by one of three independent, third-party certifiers: USP, NSF, or ConsumerLab.com.

It's important to note that the FDA does not review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they go to market. Our team of experts has created a detailed, science-backed methodology to choose the supplements we recommend.

What to Look For

Third-Party Testing

Supplements that are third-party tested are sent to a lab where they are tested to ensure they contain what they say they contain and are not contaminated with specific high-risk, common contaminants. However, it’s important to note:

  1. Third-party testing does not test to see if a product is effective or safe for everyone, and it does not ensure the supplement will not interact with other supplements or medications.
  2. Not all third-party testing is created equal. It is not uncommon for supplement companies to pay labs for certificates after conducting minimal to no testing. 
  3. The third-party certifications we can trust are: ConsumerLab.com, NSF, and USP. However, these certifications are difficult to obtain and/or expensive for manufacturers, so many companies choose not to get their products tested by one of these three organizations. 
  4. Sometimes products tested by these three companies are more expensive to try to offset the cost they pay for certification.
  5. Just because a supplement is not tested by one of these three companies does not mean it’s a bad product. We recommend doing some research on the reputability of the manufacturer and calling up the manufacturer and their testing lab to determine their protocols and decide if you feel comfortable consuming the supplement.

Form

Pre-workout supplements are available in many forms, such as powders, gels, chews, bars, whole foods, and drinks. The best form is the one that works best for your nutrition needs and what you can tolerate best before a workout. 

Ingredients and Potential Interactions 

It is essential to carefully read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel of a supplement to know which ingredients and how much of each ingredient is included relative to the recommended daily value of that ingredient. Please bring the supplement label to a healthcare provider to review the different ingredients contained in the supplement and any potential interactions between these ingredients and other supplements and medications you are taking.

There is no definition of what constitutes a pre-workout supplement, and they may contain a wide range of ingredients, many of which have no evidence to support their use. There are also ingredients common to pre-workout supplements that can be harmful and should be avoided, including:

  • Anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids are linked to life-threatening side effects, including liver and hormonal dysfunction, high cholesterol, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and behavioral changes. Many of these symptoms are irreversible. Anabolic steroids are banned by most sport organizations and should be avoided as the potential benefits do not outweigh the risks.
  • Prohormones. Prohormones are also banned by most sport organizations since they are designed to increase anabolic hormones and will show up as anabolic hormones on a drug test.
  • Arginine. Research suggests that it may actually negatively impact strength and performance.
  • MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides). There appears to be no benefit to taking MCTs prior to exercise, and evidence suggests they may negatively affect exercise performance and cause gastrointestinal upset. 

Competitive athletes should always be extremely cautious with any supplements and choose ones that are NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport Certified to ensure they do not contain any substances banned by sport.

Pre-Workout Supplement Dosage 

The amount of each nutrient you need is highly individualized based on your age, size, gender, training, sports, and the rest of your diet; however, the following guidelines can be used to determine dosing for you. 

Carbohydrates: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends between 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight one to four hours before exercise. Exactly how many carbohydrates you need pre-workout depends on the length, type of exercise, and when you had your last meal or snack. 

Caffeine: The generally accepted recommendation for caffeine pre-workout is 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. However, emerging research suggests that far less than that may still offer benefits, and for some people, more than that can be helpful. Someone weighing 150 pounds and aiming for 3 mg/kg would want to consume about 200 milligrams of caffeine, which is about the amount in a small (12-ounce) coffee. 

Creatine monohydrate: The International Society for Sports Nutrition recommends around 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for five to seven days and then 3 to 5 grams per day afterward. Creatine is not recommended for all athletes—it mostly benefits high-intensity exercise capacity and increases muscle mass. Notably, creatine does not need to be taken prior to exercise to reap the benefits.

Beta-alanine: It’s the position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that 4 to 6 grams of beta-alanine can be a safe and effective dose for most people. However, some people do report tingling as a side effect with doses this high. It is also not necessary to consume beta-alanine prior to exercise for the possible benefits. 

How Much Is Too Much?

There are no established upper limits for pre-workout supplements or the ingredients found in them. You may consider the following: 

Carbohydrates. In general, athletes need more carbohydrates than those that don’t regularly exercise. However, consuming too much carbohydrate prior to exercise could lead to gastrointestinal upset. The upper limit is highly individualized. 

Caffeine. Caffeine tolerance varies by individual. Evidence suggests that some people can tolerate  up to 9 mg/kg before exercise. However, doses over 9 mg/kg may surpass doping thresholds for some sports organizations. For example, the NCAA limits the amount of caffeine that is considered acceptable in urine to 15 ug/mL, which equates to about 500 milligrams of caffeine taken within two to three hours before an event.

Creatine. Creatine has been shown to be safe and tolerated in doses up to 30 grams per day.

Beta-alanine. Doses higher than 800 milligrams per day are more likely to increase tingling as a side effect. More research is needed to understand additional potential downsides, but it’s generally recommended to keep doses to no more than 4 to 6 grams per day. Of note, more research is needed to understand the potential side effects of long-term use as well.

What Is Pre-Workout?

There is no one definition of a pre-workout supplement. Pre-workout supplements can include a wide variety of ingredients that are believed to enhance performance, though very few are supported in the research. This may include anything from amino acids to stimulants (like caffeine). Some come with potential side effects that can be lifelong (see Ingredients and Potential Interactions) and others may be banned by sport for competitive athletes. 

Most pre-workout supplements actually lack the most important thing to support your training: carbohydrates. So if you’re considering a pre-workout supplement, make sure you’re getting carbohydrates from food or drink to give your muscles the energy they need to perform.

Products We Aren’t Recommending and Why

Huge Supplements Wrecked Pre-workout Formula. This pre-workout powder contains 17 ingredients, many of which have little to no evidence to support performance, safety is largely unknown, and some of which may be harmful. Importantly, it contains N-phenethyl dimethylamine, which is a stimulant banned by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA). In addition, it contains two concentrated sources of caffeine, totaling 350 milligrams. The FDA warns against consuming dietary supplements with pure and highly concentrated sources of caffeine, such as caffeine anhydrous, because it’s very easy to overdose on it if you’re not extremely careful with measuring out your scoop. In addition, because this supplement is not third-party tested, it’s possible that the amount on the label is not accurate, and it could contain even greater amounts.

Transparent Labs LEAN. This pre-workout powder contains several ingredients that the International Society for Sports Nutrition states do not have research to support their use, including L-citrulline and acetyl L-carnitine. In addition, it contains two sources of concentrated caffeine (caffeine anhydrous and dicaffeine malate), which the FDA warns against taking in supplement form. It is also not third-party tested, so we don’t know if it contains ingredients that are unsafe, more or less than what is on the label, or those banned for sport.

C4. C4 supplements by Cellucor are a popular pre-workout supplement line. These supplements contain ingredients that are not recommended by the International Society for Sports Nutrition, such as arginine and carnitine. In addition, they contain ingredients that have not been well studied or have not been shown to offer benefit. Most of their supplements are not third-party tested, which means they may contain harmful contaminants or ingredient amounts that are different from what is listed on the label, which could be unsafe, including caffeine anhydrous.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is creatine a pre-workout supplement?

    Creatine is well supported by research to offer benefits to training. It’s been shown to increase tolerance to high-intensity exercise as well as build lean body mass (muscle) during training. “It doesn’t really matter if you take it before or after a workout. Research has found that adding carbs or carbs and protein to creatine may help the muscle repair it further. So you can take it before or after a workout with either pre-workout carbs or post-workout carbs and protein,” says Rizzo.

  • Can pre-workout supplements make you itch?

    Beta-alanine, which is found in many pre-workout supplements, may make the skin tingle or even itch. Evidence suggests that some people experience this with doses between 4 to 6 grams, though it’s more likely to happen with doses higher than that. If a supplement is making you itch, it’s a sign you should stop that supplement and talk to your healthcare provider.

  • Are pre-workout supplements bad for your heart?

    It’s common for pre-workout supplements to contain caffeine, which in high doses may cause a feeling of a racing heart, though it hasn’t been shown to be harmful.

    Pre-workout supplements that contain anabolic steroids can be dangerous for your heart and should be avoided. If you are unsure if a pre-workout supplement has steroids or high levels of caffeine, ask a healthcare professional first.

  • How should I take a pre-workout supplement?

    Pre-workout supplements come in a variety of forms, though powders are most common. Powders can be mixed with water for a quick drink or you can add them to a smoothie for something more nutritious and flavorful. For those doing endurance activities, you may need to pair your pre-workout supplement with a source of carbohydrates, as many pre-workout supplements are low in carbohydrates. Keep in mind your pre-workout nutrition needs—like carbohydrates—may easily be met from food sources, and a powder supplement may not be needed.

    The timing of a pre-workout supplement is also highly individualized based on what you are eating or drinking, time before exercise, type, and length of exercise. If you have stomach issues during exercise after taking a pre-workout food or supplement, working with a sports dietitian can help address any problems.

  • How much caffeine should pre workout supplements contain?

    The amount of caffeine in pre-workout foods and supplements ranges from as low as 10 milligrams to over 200 milligrams per serving. The optimal dose will be individualized, but research suggests that 3-8mg/kg of body weight may help spare carbohydrate use in endurance exercise, allowing you to train for longer periods of time. The research on whether caffeine is helpful in strength activities is mixed, and optimal amounts have not been determined.

Why Trust Verywell

Sarah Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN, is a runner and triathlete. She counsels many active people, from first-time marathoners to ultra-endurance athletes, in her private practice and helps them choose the best fuel before, during, and after workouts to improve performance and recovery. As a runner and triathlete, Sarah is well aware of the importance of finding food and supplements that work well for you and has used many of the foods featured here in her training.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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