Best Pre-Workout for High School Athletes

What is the best pre-workout option for high school athletes? As a sports dietitian, this is a common question from parents and athletes and it usually sounds like this; What’s the best option? Should it come from food or a powder? What if I don’t like eating before training because it gives me an upset stomach?

As a Dietitian I will tell you upfront, your pre-workout game matters. It tops off your energy stores so you have the energy for one more trip down the field. It hydrates you to keep you from reaching critical dehydration levels that can alter your performance or worse. What to choose can be confusing. Advertisements for specialized supplements geared towards student-athletes run rampant through social media. Some sources suggest snacking can be harmful to your health. The vending machine is there and ready to take your money. Today we will discuss the best options for pre-workout as a high school athlete.

First, let’s set the scene: You are in the middle of a grueling practice. You’re sweating profusely, your stomach is growling. The thought of running down the field just one more time makes you shudder. You start to daydream about what you are going to do after practice. Should you stop by Chik-Fil-A on the way to dinner? Maybe pick up a giant milkshake to consume after dinner? During your distraction, imagine you miss a pass, or worse, you get tackled. All because you were exhausted and daydreaming about food. Does any of this sound familiar?

It’s not entirely your fault. Most games & practices cover an area between lunch and dinner, where lunch took place hours ago, dinner is right around the corner, and snacking is from the vending machine or perhaps nothing at all. Some athletes may be loading up on performance powders they heard about from a friend, other athletes have learned from a coach or parent that snacking is a no-no for optimal health so they skip it altogether.

What is the right answer when it comes to filling the lunch-to-dinner void as a student-athlete?

Pre-workout supplements, do they live up to the hype?
I know, I know, pre-workout supplements are very much “in” with the high school crowd. Everybody’s doing it. I try to remain neutral on most products because if you want to try them, your going to do it anyway, right? So instead, let’s just dissect and talk more about the WHY behind the power of pre-workout. A typical Pre-workout supplement contains caffeine, hydration, flavor, and (potentially unregulated) supplements. What does each of these substances do? Why do they give you a boost? What would be some things to consider as alternatives?

Caffeine– Most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine, which we know from research in adults is likely to give you a boost mentally and physically. This can certainly be where you get your boost. However, dosing matters especially for high school athletes.
What’s wrong with a little caffeine? I’ll be honest, not much. However, please notice that my sentence says “a LITTLE caffeine”; the current recommendation for intake is about 100mg per day (about one cup of coffee or 2 sodas) for 12-18-year-olds. Consuming too much can backfire, as caffeine does have a “sweet spot” for effectiveness. Too much can lead to nausea, headache, dizziness, sleep issues, you know, the things you DON’T want to experience when you are trying to focus and perform. How much does a pre-workout supplement have? It depends on the brand and dosing. You also need to consider other beverages you might consume during the day such as coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and the like. Chances are high that you are likely getting close to or going way over that limit even before you add a pre-workout beverage. Dragging before practice? See the bottom of this article for some suggestions on this!

Hydration & Flavoring- If you are using a pre-workout supplement, I sincerely hope you are mixing it with liquid (PLEASE NO DRY SCOOPING). Hands down, hydration is important for activity. This is another place where you are likely to see a benefit and boost in performance however it’s possible it is coming from the water itself, not the pre-workout supplement. Think of days where you don’t consume pre-workout, do you make sure you have a drink available? How does it compare? Consuming water or sports drink (depending on the type and duration of you’re your activity) prior to activity can ensure you are hydrated and ready to go. It is true that just a 2% sweat loss of fluids can affect your performance and focus!
When it comes to the flavor, I get it. Water doesn’t always taste amazing and companies who manufacture pre-workout supplements are literally flavor magicians. Flavor DOES make it easier to drink the fluids you need. What’s a good swap? A few ideas come to mind:
1) Add flavor with drink drops. Check out any local supermarket and you will see a myriad of options from your basic grape to orange Crush.
2) Try a sports drink. Remember, if your activity is 1 hour or longer and/or in high heat and humidity, it would be wise to gear up with a sports drink to not only provide hydration but energy too.
3) Add flavor with juice. Add some frozen juice cubes or even frozen fruit to your water. This also provides some added energy in the form of quick digesting carbohydrates (but it should be noted this would NOT take the place of a sports drink)!

Supplements- Here comes the tricky part. There is no standard set of ingredients when it comes to supplements in pre-workout powders. In addition to caffeine, you might see beta-alanine, creatine, BCAA’s (branch chain amino acids), nitric oxide agents, or more. While they all sound exciting, these are likely not necessary for your performance or growth as a younger athlete. Depending on the dose and consistency in which you take them, they may not add any benefit at all. Some questions you need to ask yourself before taking include:

Does it make sense to take them considering your current food intake?
For instance, if you are a regular animal protein consumer, BCAA’s are likely an unnecessary supplement.

Are the types and amounts of the supplement appropriate for your age, height, weight, and sport?
An example: Beta-Alanine needs to be taken consistently (sometimes up to 4 weeks) to see any benefit. It’s also only beneficial for super-intense exercise, and doesn’t assist with body composition.

Does the label accurately list the amount and purity of the supplement?
Since supplements are not regulated by the FDA, this means that nobody is looking over this product to ensure what is in the container matches what is listed on the label before you consume it. You could be paying for a powder that is actually devoid of any high-quality supplement or perhaps it contains MORE than what is listed on the label which can put you at a higher risk for dangerous side effects. If it’s not third-party verified this could also put you at risk of testing positive on a drug screen. A big no-no especially for my college and pro-players.

Sounds a bit sketchy, right? As a sports dietitian who works mostly with high school students, I am almost always going to advocate for food first. While more and more research is being directed towards this age group of student athletes, at this point food is much safer and more beneficial in the long run. If you start consuming powders now instead of learning to eat real food how will this play out in the long run? Will you learn to cook for yourself? Will you max out on supplements and forget how to eat? It’s important for you to learn these skills now to help you maximize your potential and keep going even if your athletic career comes to a close.

With that in mind here is how you can REALLY maximize your pre-workout game:

First and foremost, make sure you have something to eat even if it is from the vending machine. When it comes to pre-workout, what we are looking for here are easy-to-digest carbohydrates. Why? Because eating too much fat or fiber (and even some supplements!) prior to activity can cause some gastrointestinal upset (think cramping, gas, bloating), which can impact your performance. In other words, don’t pick the peanut M&M’s or Chips, go for the PB Crackers or Starbursts. If I’m being entirely honest with you, the vending machine isn’t optimal energy or cost-wise so let’s talk about some bring-from-home options.

Some great options would include:

  • Fruit- mixed fruit, fruit leathers, or applesauce packets would be quick and easy and require little of your time or effort!
  • Crackers- think Goldfish, Graham Crackers, or breakfast biscuits like Belvita
  • Dry Cereals- yes, even Cap’n Crunch!
  • Jelly Sandwiches (yes really!)
  • Pretzels- a great salty option for someone who is a salty sweater
  • Juice or a Sports Drink- Here is the flavor!

These options are high in simple carbohydrates which can top off your energy stores so you are ready for your training session and you can KEEP YOU GOING without running out of gas.

A word of caution: Don’t forget to experiment! I work with athletes with a wide range of tolerance when it comes to pre-workout snacks. These options are STARTING POINTS. Some can tolerate an entire mini-meal prior to activity while others can only stomach a handful of dry cereal. The point is to introduce this snack and see how far you can take it to really push yourself during a game or practice without it backfiring. Try these suggestions out during practice first, that way if it is a fail your not sitting in a stall during game time instead of on the field.

Don’t Forget to hydrate.
Hydration is another key to pre-workout success. As a student I know it’s difficult to get water in during the day when your only option is a water fountain. You also don’t want to be chugging water right before you start your activity. What should you do? Make a plan for everyday hydration. In short, you want to try to stay hydrated throughout the day by starting your day with water, using water fountains when available, and then when it comes right up to the start of activity consume roughly 8 ounces of water prior to starting activity and then keep going during activity (and then add some more post-activity!)!
If your practice is less than an hour-long, stick with water and add some flavor if you want to.
If your practice is an hour plus or it is taking place in some serious heat and humidity consider a sports drink. The one WITH the carbs. You’re going to want to sustain your energy along with your hydration!

If you feel you are dragging at practice, take a look at your sleep, exercise, and nutrition habits.
I know as a student you feel like your energy is boundless and you can stay up as long as you want, whenever you want. I get it. I’ve been there. I also know how crazy a student’s schedule can be with school, work, sports (sometimes multiple at one time), and maintaining a social life. Give sleep a chance! Even adding in a power nap can give you the mental refresh you need.

If you are working out seven days a week, it may be time to cut back, more is not always better! Your body needs that time to rest and recover.

As for nutrition, that is what I am here for! Reach out to me and we can work together to find ways to maximize your intake to boost your energy and power. Pre-workout hydration and snacking are only one part of the nutrition puzzle.

In conclusion

Pre-workout supplements may seem like the best option for pre-workout fuel but they may be filled with unnecessary, unregulated supplements. Consuming a solid, quick digesting carbohydrate snack with water or a sports drink is likely to take you further in the long run by topping off energy stores, hydrating you, and helping you start the recovery process sooner for your next game, practice, or training session. If you are seeing a lag in your energy, consider looking at sleep habits, an overloaded training schedule, or other areas of nutrition. 

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