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Weighing in on the pre-workout versus intra-workout supplement debate

What’s more beneficial for your training session, a pre-workout or an intra-workout supplement? It’s a common and pertinent question given the variety of products available.

Supplement manufacturers design and produce precisely-formulated products for specific purposes. In this world of intelligently-designed products, pre- and intra-workout products have become prolific product categories.

Common denominators

Both products tend to include free form amino acids or pre-digested protein in their formulations, which are rapidly absorbed and can deliver a range of benefits by sparing muscle to enhance recovery and optimise muscle growth.

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The body can also use diet-derived circulating amino acids for energy production, which spares muscle tissue, and to enhance recovery by starting the anabolic (muscle-building) process sooner.

Scientific support

A study published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that BCAAs taken before (and after) damaging weight training reduced muscle damage and accelerated recovery. Researchers also found significant reductions in muscle soreness and an increase in maximum muscle power output.

In another study, published in 2001 in the American Journal of Physiology–Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers concluded that an amino acid-carbohydrate supplement consumed before an exercise session had a greater effect than the same drink consumed after exercise, which suggests that pre-workout supplement timing may be more beneficial.

Carbs + aminos

A carb and amino acid mixture used during a workout can also limit tissue damage and kickstarts the muscle repair and growth process sooner, according to another study.

Added carbs may also blunt the natural exercise-induced cortisol response, which can also help to limit muscle loss or limit fat storage. Carbs also provide an efficient energy source to fuel your training session.

Accordingly, pre- and intra-workout formulation both generally contain a blend of free form amino acids and carbs.

As such, it is worth questioning whether it is more beneficial to use one over the other.

Formulation nuances

Beyond the base ingredients (amino acids and a carb source), these products may differ slightly in their formulations. And it is in this detail where you may discover that it is not necessarily an either-or question.

Rather, it may be beneficial to determine how best to combine both products synergistically to get the greatest benefit, depending on your goals.

Pre-workout supplements generally contain nitric oxide, which promotes vasodilation to deliver more of the additional nutrients (fast-acting carbs and amino acids) to working muscles. These products also often contain stimulants to boost energy and improve workout efficiency.

An intra-workout would generally add ingredients that support your training intensity and recovery needs during your workout, such as glutamine, beta-alanine, creatine and electrolytes.

Informed chioces

Should your preferred products reflect these formulations, then a supplement regimen that combines both products may yield the best results.

Obviously, there are formulations in both product categories that tend to include all these ingredients and compounds.

In these instances, it would be a waste to combine both and may actually be harmful as you could inadvertently overdose on potent ingredients like stimulants or vasodilators.

For that reason, it’s important to read the label on your preferred pre-workout and intra-workout products to ensure there is no overlap in formulations to avoid double-dosing on active ingredients.

As such, if you already take a comprehensive pre-workout, stick to a simple amino acid blend for your intra-workout supplement.

If you want to choose one over the other, select a product from a reputable manufacturer that offers the most comprehensive formulation (a blend of all or most of the ingredients mentioned).

Personal preference

In terms of which is best, science affirms benefits to both pre- and intra-workout supplement timing strategies. It could therefore boil down to personal preference.

Do you need a jolt to get your mind and body ready for the looming workout? Then a pre-workout is your go-to option.

Otherwise, a quality intra-workout will deliver everything you need to fuel your workout and support your recovery needs.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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