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7 Natural Pre-workout Alternatives That Actually Work

Anthony Diaz
Published by Anthony Diaz
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: August 2, 2022

I have many fitness clients that want the energy and performance enhancement that comes with pre-workout supplements but without commercial products.

These clients are pretty strict on what they put into their bodies and generally limit themselves to unprocessed whole foods. So, a few of them asked me about the best natural alternatives to pre-workouts that provide similar effects.

I sat down with our dietician at Total Shape, and we dug deep into some ingredients and compiled a list we feel would be a decent replacement for a scoop of powder.

Here’s what we found.

Quick Summary

  • Many whole foods offer high nutritional value and may fuel your workout somewhat similarly to pre-workouts.
  • Simple carbs, like fruit, are one of the best natural pre-workout alternatives because they take less time to be digested by the body, can be consumed shortly before exercise, and provide a good energy boost.
  • Oatmeal is a healthy pre-workout alternative when consumed a couple of hours before exercise.

Do Natural Pre-workout Alternatives Work?

A natural pre-workout supplement offers fuel for your workout with the proper dosage of ingredients in one convenient scoop.

However, it is possible to energize your workout with alternatives like whole foods, but it definitely takes more planning.

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

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What Nutrients You Want in a Pre-workout?

Coffee beans falling from a spoon

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 [1].

Caffeine can be one of the best pre-workout alternatives on its own or combined with carbs and protein to fuel a workout.

Carbohydrates often get a bad rap, but carbs provide the body with energy and are an essential component of fuel for exercise.

The timing of carb intake is important when used as an exercise boost.

Complex carbs are digested more slowly and should be eaten two or three hours before working out.

Simple carbohydrates are absorbed more quickly into the body, and it is most beneficial to consume them 30-60 minutes before working out [2].

Protein makes for great pre-workout nutrition and may provide increased strength, improved muscle recovery, and muscle growth.

Promoting muscle protein synthesis is the most crucial role of protein because it repairs muscles after an intense workout [3].

Fats, like carbohydrates, are an essential source of energy. Opinions are mixed when it comes to the best timing for fat consumption related to workouts.

The body breaks down fats more slowly than carbohydrates, so, though a valuable source of energy, in my opinion, it may be best to limit fat intake before working out.

Foods and Drinks That Make Great Natural Pre-workouts

Not all foods are equal when providing energy for exercise. Let’s take a closer look at some foods with an excellent reputation for energizing a workout.

Foods

Close up image of fruits

Fruits are one of the best foods you can consume before exercise. Fruits contain easily digestible simple carbohydrates that don’t require much planning.

Many fruits also have a high water content, aiding hydration during training.

Bananas have been a popular pre-workout snack for ages because they are rich in potassium, can prevent muscle cramps, and aid recovery [4].

One of the other significant functions of potassium is maintaining fluid balance, so making sure your potassium stores are sufficient before being secreted through the sweat during exercise is essential [5].

A peanut butter sandwich can give you a significant pre-workout boost. Made on whole-grain bread can provide a bit of protein from the peanut butter and energy from the carbohydrates in the bread.

Greek yogurt provides gut-friendly simple carbs to fuel your workout. Yogurt breaks down quickly, so eating shortly before working out provides a good energy boost.

Be mindful of the sugar content added to many brands. Try to consume a low-sugar yogurt with some fresh berries for sweetness.

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

Coffee

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.

Energy drinks

It can 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, so it is essential to read the labels and avoid ones with high sugar content.

Green tea

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 that drinking green tea before working out can enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation [6].

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 [7].

"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 Brussel 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.

Some Other Options

Drinking protein shake from tumbler

Salt should be consumed before a workout. It is considered critical to exercise performance, and low sodium can cause trouble for an athlete.

Salt increases blood volume, decreases fatigue, and reduces the chance of muscle cramps [8].

Drinking a protein shake as part of your exercise routine before hitting the gym is a matter of preference.

Some users swear by protein post-workout, while others say the real benefit comes from consuming it before exercise.

Whatever your preference, consuming a protein shake around exercise time helps repair and rebuild muscle.

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), a crucial part of protein powders, provide energy for a workout when consumed beforehand and promote muscle protein synthesis afterward [9].

Related article: BCAAs vs Pre-Workout Supplements

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.

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.

Pre-workout or Alternatives: How Will You Fuel Your Workout?

There are many good foods and drinks to consider if you seek an alternative to pre-workouts, although none of them can actually reach the potency of the specialized product.

I have experimented with a lot of foods and natural pre-workout supplements, and I must tell you, nothing can beat the convenience of pre-workouts, the simplicity of the timing, easy dosing, and most importantly, the effectiveness.

Our team has tested most of the best-selling products on the market, so make sure to check them out:


References

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

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