If you’re trying to boost energy and push through workout plateaus, you’ve probably seen coffee and pre-workout supplements marketed to help with this. But do these actually work? And when it comes to coffee vs. pre-workout – is one better than the other for helping boost performance? Today, find out the answers to these questions and how to choose the right product.
Disclaimer: This post has been reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD. It is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical or dietary advice. Consult your doctor or dietitian prior to making dietary changes or beginning a new supplement routine.
Coffee has been the most common energy boost of choice throughout the years. Centuries ago, the raw fruit of the coffee plant would be used to brew a stimulating beverage. Later on, the beans were roasted to create a more pleasant tasting beverage which we now know to be coffee.
Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Supplements (MIPS), more commonly known as pre-workout, are much newer to the market. The first pre-workout supplement was developed in 1982. Since then, product types have expanded and have gained dramatic popularity in the last five to ten years.
Intended to be consumed before exercise, these supplements typically contain a combination of caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, nitric oxide precursors, and amino acids. In theory, these nutrients should have a synergistic effect on exercise capacity and performance compared to coffee alone.
But are they worth the extra money? Critics say their cup of coffee provides just the right amount of energy burst they need. But upon investigation, it seems there are more pros & cons to this debate.
The Benefits of Coffee
Perk #1: Caffeine
Clearly, the main reason most people drink coffee is not necessarily for it’s taste, but for it’s caffeine content. Despite a rapidly growing caffeine industry, coffee continues to account for the majority of caffeine consumption in the world.
Caffeine is widely accepted for a performance enhancer during endurance events when consumed in the amounts of 3-6 mg/kg (source). Similarly, studies suggest that caffeine at 3-9 mg/kg enhances muscular strength and endurance, and potentially power as well, for athletes doing resistance training (source).
Some research suggests even smaller doses around 2 to 3 mg/kg, or about 200 mg total of caffeine, may help improve performance (source). However, this may be limited to certain sport and exercise applications, and may also be limited to individual caffeine responses (including genetics that affect caffeine metabolism).
While the exact mechanisms are still not fully understood, caffeine may improve exercise performance by increase alertness, decreasing perceived exertion, and affecting strength and neuromuscular function.
Governing sports bodies recognize this ergogenic effect, and some have even placed limits on caffeine intake. For example, up until 2004, the International Olympic Committee included a caffeine limit. The NCAA still places caffeine under it’s banned substances list, limiting an athlete to 15 micrograms in their urine before an event. (To reach that amount, though, you’d need to consume quite a bit of caffeine though – around 5 to 8 cups of coffee before your event.)
Coffee offers up an easy and inexpensive way to get some caffeine in before a workout. According to the Mayo Clinic, an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains around 96 milligrams of caffeine. This amount can vary based on the type of coffee and brewing method, though.
If you think back to that 3 mg/kg level, a 68 kilogram athlete would need around 200 mg of caffeine before a workout for the ergogenic effect. That would be about two 8-ounce cups of coffee.
Because of the time it takes the body to reach peak levels, it’s best to drink your coffee about an hour before your workout.
As added bonus for athletes, outside of the workout itself: caffeine in coffee may additionally help with weight management and the reduction of body fat mass (source). Those who consume coffee regularly are more likely to have reduced BMI and weight circumference (source).
Perk #2: Antioxidants
While most of us know caffeine is in coffee, we often forget there are also powerful antioxidants present (source), providing benefits outside of that morning energy boost. These antioxidants help protect our body from the oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Excessive oxidative stress equals damage to our cells, setting us up for premature aging and chronic disease.
One thing many people don’t realize is that heavy exercise routines can increase oxidative stress (source), so it’s important to have a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods that include antioxidants. Obviously you need a variety of foods with these (like berries, nuts, cocoa, etc) – but coffee can also be a source of them.
Cons of Coffee Consumption
While there is promising research surrounding coffee’s caffeine & antioxidant content, it is important to weigh the risks.
Anecdotally, coffee is well known for its potential effect on “getting things moving” in terms of bowel movements and may need to be avoided immediately before a workout. This is particularly true for endurance runners, where the jostling of a run may compound digestive issues, and bathrooms are not regularly available while out on a run. It’s much less of a concern for strength athletes working out at a gym.
In addition, caffeine may make you feel anxious or jittery, or cause gastrointestinal upset – particularly if you’re not use to it or if you take a large dose. Similarly, it may be wise to skip caffeine before evening workouts, as the caffeine content may interrupt sleep quality.
The Benefits of Pre-Workout
Perk #1 Caffeine
Similar to coffee, caffeine is also present in many pre-workout supplements. Caffeine amounts in pre-workout vary greatly depending on the brand and product. While some are caffeine-free, some provide more than the amount of caffeine in a standard cup of coffee.
For example, a cup of black coffee contains around 100 mg of caffeine, while many pre-workout supplements contain 150-475 mg range per serving.
Because there are many different products on the market, pre-workouts could be a great choice for those both sensitive to caffeine (by selecting a caffeine-free version) or for those who want caffeine but dislike the taste of coffee (by selecting a caffeine version).
Perk #2 Creatine
Creatine is a chemical compound already produced in the body. People also get creatine by eating animal foods like red meat, chicken, and fish. Creatine plays a main role in energy production and muscle health. In fact, your body uses creatine in the energy production system that’s used for short, powerful exercises – like high intensity, low rep strength workouts.
When supplemented, research shows an improvement in training adaptations and performance during that high intensity exercise (source). In other words, you may be able to push just a little longer and stronger at that maximum intensity level.
While creatine doesn’t have to be taken right before a workout to achieve it’s ergogenic impact, it can be convenient to take it then if it’s combined into a pre-workout supplement.
Perk #3 Beta-Alanine
Most pre-workouts on the market have beta-alanine as a major ingredient. Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that is used – along with another amino acid called l-histidine – to create carnosine in your muscles (source).
Carnosine helps buffer acid buildup. One theory is that acid buildup leads to muscular fatigue and decreases force production. If beta alanine could increase carnosine production, it would theoretically improving the muscle’s ability to deal with rising acid levels and as such its ability to continue working (source).
Note that this has simply been a long-held theory, but is not necessarily proven. Some research suggests that other factors may play a role in muscular fatigue, such as inorganic phosphate accumulation or neural contributors. And there are also other theories for why beta-alanine may be beneficial, such as impacts on oxidative stress.
Nevertheless, some research has supported the use of beta-alanine to boost performance and delay fatigue in certain exercise situations. We just haven’t discovered the exact mechanism yet.
For example, a 2012 meta-analysis found that beta alanine supplementation improved exercise capacity in tasks lasting 1 to 4 minutes. There were also benefits, though less pronounced, in exercise scenarios over 4 minutes (source). There is still not much research on beta-alanine as far as resistance training goes.
Of note, most beta-alanine studies that show significant ergogenic effects have been on untrained or recreational athletes, so you may not achieve the same benefit if you’re very well trained.
Perk #4: Nitric Oxide Agents
Instead of nitric oxide itself, pre workouts typically contain a nitric oxide agent to help the body produce more nitric oxide naturally. Examples include L-arginine and L-citrulline, or natural sources of dietary nitrates like beetroot.
Nitric Oxide helps the blood vessels to widen, improving blood flow, and reducing blood pressure. A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism concluded that nitrate supplementation generally led to improvement on time to exhaustion exercise tasks (source).
When it comes to beetroot in particular (which may be present as beet juice in liquid pre-workout supplements, or a powdered form may be present in powdered supplements) – studies have shown benefits for both endurance exercise (source) and (though less established) on intermittent, high intensity exercise (source).
Cons of Pre-Workout Consumption
The cons of pre-workout comes down to two things: side effects from the ingredients, and trustworthiness of the ingredients.
As with coffee, some experience may experience side effects of caffeine. Since some pre-workouts can contain more caffeine than a cup of coffee, you may be more likely to experience side effects like jitteriness or stomach upset.
Too large doses of beta-alanine can result in flushing and tingling sensations of the skin. This can be avoided by using pre-workouts with smaller doses of beta alanine.
While there was some initial skepticism on potential damage to the liver & kidneys from overconsumption of creatine, studies have negated these effect (source). Some people do experience a little uptick on the scale when using creatine, however this is due to water retention and not true weight gain.
Lastly, if you’re experiencing negative side effects like a headache or bloating when using a pre-workout, it’s important to consider the other ingredients. For example, many pre workouts contain artificial sweeteners, which some people are sensitive to. Be sure to thoroughly evaluate the label on any product you’re using.
Trustworthiness of Ingredients
When it comes to trustworthiness of ingredients, it’s important to keep in mind that pre-workouts (or any other supplement) are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). This means there is no guarantee on the claims made by the product packaging, or even assurance on the quality of ingredients. Some studies have shown that the amounts stated on certain supplement packages aren’t actually accurate when run through third party testing.
If you’re an athlete participating in sports overseen by a governing body, you also need to consider the possibility of accidental exposure to a banned substance through contamination of supplements. For example, one study found rates of contamination between 12 to 58% (source). You definitely don’t want to risk your athletic career over a pre workout supplement.
For these reasons, if you want to use a pre-workout, it’s important to find a high quality, trustworthy company that you trust.
Try looking for companies that do adequate testing on their products to ensure quality and accuracy in labeling. You can also look for products that offer third party certification, like Informed Choice/Informed Sport, or NSF, which helps ensure the products include the ingredients they say are in them and don’t include banned substances.
Conclusions: Coffee vs. Pre-workout
Both coffee and pre-workout have their own advantages and disadvantages. In terms of price & safety, coffee is much more cost-effective with relatively few side effects to the general population. A cup or two of coffee about an hour before your workout is an easy way to boost performance, particularly for endurance athletes and recreational athletes.
However, for experienced gym-goers looking to break through fitness plateaus, there may be an additional benefit from a pre-workout supplement. This assumes it contains the right balance of ingredients mentioned above, and that you’re not already taking some of those ingredients separately. Keep in mind that the cons discussed may outweigh the potential benefits, so you need to carefully weigh all your options.
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