Pre-workout Drinks Have Lost Their Way

4/4/14

We all have stress, and we all have ways of handling it. Mine is exercise: Brisk, early morning, initially regretful exercise that gets me ready to face any day. When I turned 29 I swore to enter my thirties in the best shape of my life by working with a personal trainer several times a week. We focused on five basic movements: up, down, push, pull, and locomotion. This combination of unorthodox exercises allowed me to achieve that goal.

I was never an athlete, so achieving this elite level of fitness was new. I quickly learned that how you live your life the day before is critical to next day’s performance. So, a huge glutoneous meal the night before that 6 a.m. sprint up Long Beach’s steepest hill while towing a 200-lb physical trainer? Bad idea. This requirement for high-level performance early in the morning when last night’s meal lingered quickly changed my eating habits.  Changes in hydration and sleep followed.

Being older than most of the men at the gym, I allowed my ego to drive me to new levels of fitness I had no place being. I am not a Navy SEAL nor will I ever be one. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I was fully in my adult years. My new workouts offered boot camp-like extreme levels of endurance and strength conditioning, but my ego wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Enter pre-work-out powdered drinks. They promised to keep me hydrated, energized, and full of essential nutrients that I absolutely “needed” to perform at a high level.

Gatorade started the trend in the late 60’s with a drink to replenish high-performing athletes’ electrolytes and carbohydrates as well as water. The science is sound with products of this sort that replenish nutrients. We have used them for decades. Unwanted primary effects are generally not an issue.

Today, branded ingredients, amalgamations of vitamins, and new forms of caffeine have flooded the pre-workout marketplace. Gone forever are the days of simple electrolytes and available sugars. With names like NO-Xplode, Assault, and 4 extreme this category is designed to entice egos of all ages with hopes of outperforming the next generation.

This was my not-so-secret competitive edge: Take two scoops of some aggressively named branded pre-work-out drink with over 100 ingredients about 30 minutes before the workout and I’d have superhero strength and the stamina of a 25-year-old! Drink a gallon of water? Really? Why? (Seriously, many clearly state to drink at least 1 gallon of water the day you use the product.) Well, even though that sounded like cheating, it wasn’t illegal and reputable stores sell them so it must be OK.  Sure, headaches would be an almost certainty. Ditto shaky hands for the better part of the day. Whatever. It was all part of the mission.

Over the next three years I continued keeping up with the younger bucks and even outperforming them.  I was also constantly nursing injuries: hernias, pneumonia, broken toe, sprained ankle, torn-up shoulder, and questionable hormone levels causing unwanted mood swings.

Read that last part again.

After the triple hernia surgery I took a step back and assessed my behavior. I had three months to recover and have a heated discussion between ego and self-preservation. They reached a compromise: At 35 years old, second, third, or even fourth place was perfectly fine in the realm of morning exercise. We also decided that if the activity required unnatural substances to keep up maybe I should perform at (lesser) high levels naturally.

I did and I still am. That doesn’t mean I’m against the pre-work out drinks and their new novel ingredients. I just think they need to be approached with respect and caution. As a chemist and lover of natural products, I see this category running the risk of failure. We all know vigorous exercise and caffeine have shown to increase risk of cardiovascular abnormalities to those susceptible. It’s that susceptibility that we don’t know about—until an event occurs. Then it’s too late.

Just because science has allowed us to get there doesn’t always mean we should be there. New ingredients are regularly taken off the shelves in both the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry and the moderately regulated dietary supplement industry. The statement, “Whoops, I guess that wasn’t safe” doesn’t sit well with me. The members of this industry owe it to be responsible, because customers may not show such good judgment.

I should know. I was one of them.

 

Categories: Analytical Testing, Product Verification/Validation