Do Pre-Workout Energy Drinks Actually Fuel Exercise?

Drinks like Celsius and C4 Energy claim to enhance your workout. But are they helpful or dangerous? Here's what experts think.

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“Optimizing your workout” is a phrase that is often used to sum up making the most of exercise, whether that means running faster or more efficiently to target a specific muscle group.

One way that some people try to optimize their fitness regimen is through the use of pre-workout energy drinks from brands like Celsius and C4 Energy, which claim to be healthier than regular energy drinks, and help you have your best workout after drinking them. Specifically, Celsius says it “accelerates metabolism” and “burns body fat.” Many people also use them to feel more alert and focused during exercise.

But can a drink really do this? Or is it just the workout itself contributing to these changes in your body and mind? Are there any downsides to these drinks?

Here, experts share what to know and some of the dangers associated with them.

What is a workout energy drink?

These workout drinks are “popular among fitness enthusiasts and elite athletes who are seeking to improve their strength, power, agility or speed,” said Emma Laing, the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia.

While this is the traditional use of these drinks, they are also consumed as a thirst quencher by people who like the taste and the boost of energy they get after a few sips, she added.

The exact makeup of these workout energy drinks varies by brand, but Dr. Scott Jerome, a sports cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, noted that they often contain some mix of caffeine, green tea extract, guarana (which is like a natural form of caffeine) and taurine (which supports the heart and brain, and can help nerve growth).

The amount of each additive is generally not spelled out on the label, but most of these drinks advertise that they have about 200 milligrams of caffeine. For reference, an eight-ounce cup of coffee has 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine. So you’re getting much more of an energy boost after drinking one of these.

What do these drinks do?

Workout energy drinks claim to deliver a competitive edge that leads to improved energy levels, metabolism, body composition and athletic performance, Laing said. All in all, they tout making you a better athlete during your workout.

People who use them to get that workout boost generally drink them 30 to 60 minutes before exercising to give the ingredients time to fully kick in.

Many companies claim their workout energy drinks can make you a better athlete, but experts say that probably isn't completely accurate.
Westend61 via Getty Images
Many companies claim their workout energy drinks can make you a better athlete, but experts say that probably isn't completely accurate.

Do these drinks actually work?

Yes and no. The high caffeine content may mean you’ll have a little more energy during a run or weightlifting session, Jerome said, but any claims of increased weight loss are probably not accurate. Weight loss is coming from the actual workout, not the drink.

Additionally, Laing said that while many of the ingredients found in these beverages — like antioxidants, amino acids, creatine, vitamins and minerals — are linked to improvements in athletic performance in adults, “the quantities of these ingredients vary widely among products and will likely not offer much benefit beyond what an overall nutritious eating pattern provides.”

She noted that you can get your daily allotment of these ingredients from eating protein-packed foods, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. And eating a balanced diet will fully fuel your workout.

Pre-workout drinks can be expensive and are not necessarily more advantageous than whole foods when it comes to supporting athletic performance,” Laing added.

Plus, those whole foods don’t come with any risk factors, which, unfortunately, workout drinks have.

There are heart health risks for those who consume these drinks.

According to Jerome, these energy workout energy drinks increase heart rate and blood pressure, which makes them a risky beverage for many people — especially for someone who has high blood pressure or a history of heart problems.

Increased heart rate and blood pressure could lead to dysrhythmia (an abnormal heartbeat) or atrial fibrillation, which can cause blood clots in the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic.

These problems don’t only occur in older people with heart problems either. Young people have also reported issues after drinking these beverages. A few years ago, a 26-year-old suffered a heart attack after drinking multiple energy drinks in one day and people have reported on TikTok that they’ve experienced heart issues after drinking them for a prolonged period of time.

From a heart standpoint, these aren’t great,” Jerome said.

And there are other risk factors, too.

Beyond heart problems, these drinks are linked to other worrisome issues, too.

“Adverse effects of pre-workout drinks could occur among those who consume more than the suggested amount, if they take other performance-enhancing supplements or if the ingredients in the pre-workout drink interact negatively with their medications,” Laing said. So, it’s important to keep this in mind before chugging a workout drink.

If you are going to drink one, stick to the serving size, and take a minute to consider if any medicine you’re taking could be negatively impacted by this drink.

Laing added that you should also keep the caffeine contents in mind when deciding to have one of these drinks. “A limit of 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is recommended for most adults,” Laing said. So, just one of these drinks makes up half of your daily caffeine allotment.

When you take in too much caffeine, you could deal with disrupted sleep and heightened stress, Laing said.

Even as you weigh these risk factors, keep in mind that you can get the nutrients these drinks say they provide elsewhere — through vegetables, whole grains, fruit and more.

Diet and exercise remain the best ways to achieve what energy workout drinks promise, Jerome noted. And, while some of his patients do use these drinks, Jerome said he does not recommend them.

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