7 Natural Pre-workout Alternatives That Actually Work

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: March 31, 2024
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Looking for a natural way to energize before working out but not sure where to begin?

My clients often prioritize unprocessed foods and look for natural pre-workout supplements instead of commercial products.

Our dietician and I researched natural ingredients as replacements for pre-workout supplements and compiled a list we believe offers a suitable alternative.

Read on and uncover the secrets to naturally boosting your exercise routine.

Quick Summary

  • Oatmeal, greek yogurt, coffee, energy drinks, and green tea are some of the best natural pre-workout alternatives.
  • Pre-workouts boost your energy levels and endurance when working out for enhanced performance and endurance.
  • Studies show that green tea extract (GTE) ingestion increases fat oxidation rates by 17% compared to a placebo.
  • I believe that while natural alternatives bring health benefits and lack artificial additives, specialized pre-workout products offer unmatched convenience, precise dosing, and effectiveness.

The Best Natural Pre-Workout Alternatives

In my research, I've discovered that while not all foods fuel workouts equally, some have a stellar reputation for boosting energy.

Foods

Healthy food with fruits

There are four types of foods that are natural pre-workouts:

  1. Fruits are an excellent pre-workout snack because they contain easily digestible simple carbohydrates that don’t require much planning. Many fruits also have a high water content, aiding hydration during training [1][2].
  2. A peanut butter sandwich can give you a significant pre-workout boost. Made on whole-grain bread, it can provide a bit of protein from the peanut butter and energy from the carbohydrates in the bread.
  3. Greek yogurt provides gut-friendly simple carbs to fuel your workout. Yogurt breaks down quickly, so eating before working out boosts energy. Be mindful of the sugar content added to many brands. Try to consume a low-sugar yogurt with some fresh berries for sweetness.
  4. Oatmeal takes more planning to consume before exercise because the body digests oats more slowly, and they can sit heavier in your stomach. However, they offer a longer payoff than simple carbs, as the energy is released more gradually.

Drinks

A person drinking energy drink

At the same time, you also have three types of drinks that give you a natural pre-workout boost:

  1. Coffee is a good pre-workout as it provides caffeine that stimulates the central nervous system, improving reaction time and reducing fatigue. The optimum time to drink coffee is 30-45 minutes before exercise when consuming it as a natural pre-workout alternative.
  2. Energy drinks serve the same purpose as coffee for a big caffeine hit and an energy boost for a workout. Many energy drinks come loaded with sugar. Reading the labels and avoiding the ones with high sugar count is essential.
  3. Green tea is also a great pre-workout drink as it contains caffeine, but its darker counterpart, black tea, is a more significant source.

Studies show drinking green tea before working out can enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation [3].

Though different in how they are processed, the benefits are similar in green tea extract and matcha green tea. Drinking matcha powder before exercise also enhanced fat oxidation [4].

"The right pre-workout fuel will help to optimize your energy levels, your performance, and even how you feel after a workout, the proper fuel can also help you increase the intensity and duration of exercise, which will burn more calories in the long run."

- Molly Kimball, Registered Dietician

Foods and Drinks to Avoid Before Working Out

Fiber is integral to a healthy diet, but not before working out, as high-fiber vegetables are quite difficult to digest. Keep the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower after your workout, and reach for sweet potatoes before exercising.

You should also do your best to avoid: 

  • High-fat foods can make your body work hard to get the energy out of them, increasing fatigue before you even begin to exercise.
  • Fast food is loaded with sugar and fat, provides no nutritional benefit for your workout, and you will probably feel uncomfortably full.
  • Soda contains caffeine and sugar but is a poor energy booster as the rush comes and goes quickly.

You should not include spicy foods in your pre-workout routine because they can stimulate your GI tract, spelling trouble during exercise. Keeping your diet somewhat bland with easy-to-digest foods before working out can save you a lot of discomfort during your workout.

Other Natural Pre-Workout Options

Woman Drinking protein shake from tumbler

After carefully researching additional components that could give you a boost in your training, I found three that I liked the most:

  1. Salt: It should be consumed before a workout. It is considered critical to exercise performance, and low sodium can cause trouble for an athlete. It increases blood volume, decreases fatigue, and reduces the chance of muscle cramps [5].
  2. Protein shake: Drinking a protein shake as part of your exercise routine before hitting the gym is preferred. Some users swear by protein post-workout, while others say the real benefit comes from consuming it before exercise. Whatever your preference, drinking a protein shake around exercise time helps repair and rebuild muscle.
  3. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): A crucial part of protein powders, they provide energy for a workout when consumed beforehand and promote muscle protein synthesis afterwards [6].

Related article: BCAAs vs Pre-Workout Supplements

Natural Pre-Workouts vs. Traditional Pre-Workouts

Natural Pre-Workouts

Pros

  1. Natural Ingredients: You avoid artificial additives and preservatives by choosing natural ingredients.
  2. Flexibility: You can adjust your intake based on your needs and preferences.
  3. Cost-Effective: Opting for natural alternatives is often more economical than buying branded supplements.

Cons

  1. Preparation Time: It might take longer to prepare and consume foods than a powdered supplement.
  2. Difficulty in Measurement: Determining the amount of nutrients you consume can be challenging.

Traditional Pre-Workouts

Pros

  1. Convenience: They are quick and easy to prepare and consume.
  2. Precise Dosing: Ingredients and their amounts are clearly labeled.
  3. Quick Effect: Designed to provide a fast and effective energy boost.

Cons

  1. Artificial Ingredients: They might contain colorings, flavors, and other additives.
  2. Cost: They are often more expensive than natural alternatives.
  3. Side Effects: Some might experience side effects like palpitations or insomnia.

What Nutrients You Want in a Pre-workout?

Coffee beans falling from a scoop

Caffeine is a common ingredient in pre-workout supplements. Why?

Because caffeine is proven to enhance athletic performance by increasing focus, boosting energy levels, and improving endurance [7]. It's one of the best pre-workout alternatives combined with carbs and protein to fuel a workout.

Carbs can also be exercise's best friend. They're our energy fuel. Just remember, timing's key. Eat complex carbs a couple of hours before hitting the gym and simple carbs about 30-60 minutes prior. Complex carbs are digested more slowly and should be eaten for two or three hours before working out [8].

Protein makes for great pre-workout nutrition and may provide increased strength, improved muscle recovery, and muscle growth. They promote muscle protein synthesis and repair muscles after an intense workout [9].

Do Natural Pre-workout Alternatives Work?

From my experience, natural pre-workouts provide the necessary fuel for workouts, just like their commercial counterparts.

I've found that whole foods can energize workouts, though they require more planning.

Let’s take a closer look at what nutrients are essential before a workout.

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FAQs

Can Coffee Replace Pre-workout?

Coffee can technically replace pre-workout while offering similar benefits like enhanced physical performance, boosted cognitive ability, and an increase in fat burning, all of which are benefits of caffeine found in most pre-workout formulas.

However, if you're caffeine-sensitive, it's best to get a pre-workout instead since it has lower caffeine levels. That way, you won't end up experiencing various negative side effects, such as jitteriness or sleeplessness during the night.

Can I Use Salt as a Pre-workout?

You can use salt as a pre-workout because it is a good way to increase energy and blood volume, improve blood flow, and increase workout endurance.


References:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/banana-after-workout#bottom-line
  2. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-does-potassium-do
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18326618/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29345213/
  5. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/03/20/is-salt-the-newest-workout-supplement
  6. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-bcaa
  7. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-020-00383-4
  8. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322963
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16988909/
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About The Author

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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