Old school pre-workout supplements

Old school supplements

Image source: Melinda Fawver
Pre-workouts have come a long way.

Bulking up? Preparing for a triathlon? Training for your favourite sport? If you’re serious about working out, you’ll know a pre-workout supplement can make all the difference to achieving your fitness goals.

But what did people do before the days of pre-workout supplements, protein shakes, energy bars and sports drinks?

Let’s find out…

San bushmen of the Kalahari

The oldest inhabitants of South Africa, the San have been walking the arid lands of the Kalahari for at least 20,000 years. They roam in groups of up to 25 people, hunting and gathering and will eat almost anything. From plants to insects, snakes and porcupines – they use everything that nature offers to scrape a living from the barren land.

But the San people’s favorite quarry is eland, a type of antelope. Eland heart fat is given as a gift to the father of the bride, cave paintings of the animal are believed by witch doctors to be a portal to the spirit world, and boys become men once they’ve killed one.

Like all things well sought after, eland are tough to catch and kill. San people use poison arrows to catch their prey, but it sometimes takes the animal several days to die. Until the beast finally keels over, hunters must track it day and night.

So how do they fuel up for this mighty endeavour? Wild honey. Portable, full of energy and tasty; just the thing you need for a pre-hunt top up.


Legendary distance runners, the Tarahumara are the subject of a famous book ‘Born to Run’, by Christopher McDougall. This revolutionary tome explores the tribe’s extraordinary affinity with running and looks for lessons we can adapt for our own purposes.  

The Tarahumara live in the depths of Mexico’s Copper mountains. Their traditional cave homes are widely dispersed – the only way to get about is to run. And boy do they run.

Clad only in a loincloth, brightly coloured shirt and primitive sandals, they cover vast distances. There are reports of them covering up to 200 miles in a single session, lasting two entire days.  

So how do they fuel their incredible prowess? Cornmeal gruel, beans and barbecued mice make up a large part of the Tarahumara diet. But the supplement that’s got scientists thinking is the chia seed.

Chia seeds are packed with antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Heralded as a new superfood, they’re much in demand.  Unusually, when soaked for a few minutes, they turn the water to jelly.  


Ever wondered how the famous carnival queens keep up the tempo? Brazil is fuelled by Guarana. A plant native to the amazon basin, the active ingredient is caffeine. One berry contains twice the amount of the stimulant as a coffee bean.

Although the outside skin of the fruit is orange, red or brown in colour, inside it’s white with a black pip at the centre. The resemblance of the fruit to a human eyeball is perhaps the basis of the folk myth that explains the origin of the Guarana plant.

Legend has it that a malevolent deity stole into a village and killed a much loved child. The locals were so distraught that a good spirit plucked out the child’s eyes and planted them. The eyes grew to become the wild and cultivated strains of the Guarana plant.

If chewing on a child’s eye seems a bit much – you could try the Brazilian soft drink, ‘Guaraná’.


When the Zulu Impis went on the march, they’d think little of trotting forty or fifty miles. Then, without stopping to get their breath back, they’d use the local topography to advance unseen towards their enemies before attacking them. So where did they get the energy?

Before snuffing out their opponents, Zulu warriors would take some snuff of their own; a local strain of the marijuana plant. Unlike the banned drug we know today, this stuff had all the stimulant, but none of the sedative qualities of the active ingredient, THC.

The British supplement

Take your super runner Mexicans, Zulu Impis, Brazilian Samba dancers and Native American corn geniuses. Now combine all the positive effects of their super healthy, super food infused, stimulant enriched concoctions – and still, they’d be no patch on what the Brits have up their sleeve.

Asterix swore by it, the founders of Empire found it kept their upper lips stiff, and it kept us going through two world wars.

We love it so much, we knit hats to keep it warm, we designed special cups to serve it in, and even invented biscuits to dunk. Take it black, white or with a little sugar, we we know it won’t make us live forever, or propel us to athletic greatness. But while we never overstate its properties, nor do we undersell it either – a cup of tea is always just, ‘nice’.

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