Whether you’ve walked through the supplement store to browse or saw some sponsored social ads pop up for products – you might be wondering if you should use pre-workout before running. And the answer to that question, like so much else in sports nutrition, is “it depends.”
While pre-workout may boost energy levels and improve performance, those benefits are highly dependent on the specific blend of ingredients in the product, the type of workout you’re doing, and your individual physiology and tolerance. Not all supplements are the same, and some people may experience side effects that are uncomfortable and outweigh any potential benefits.
In addition, any athlete subject to banned substance testing will want to be cautious about the type and brand of supplement being used (to ensure there’s no contamination with prohibited ingredients).
Let’s dive into all the details!
Disclaimer: This post was written and reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, Registered Dietitian and RRCA Running Coach. It is for informational purposes only and should not be considered individual nutrition or medical advice. Always consult your doctor or dietitian prior to starting any supplement.
What ingredients are in a pre-workout supplement?
One key point to remember is that “pre-workout” has no official definition. Many supplement companies label products as pre-workout blends but the ingredients in each vary widely.
In general, most products contain some of the following ingredients, and their individual benefits are noted:
- Caffeine – One of the most well-researched ergogenic aids! Research has shown that ingesting 3-6 mg/kg of caffeine before a workout can boost performance by 2-4% across many studies. Most research is on endurance activities like running, but there may be a small benefit for strength work as well.
- Beta-alanine – This is an amino acid used to make carnosine, which may have a role in buffering acids produced during exercise, possibly allowing you to maintain intensity longer. It may also help by acting as a free radical scavenger and affecting muscle contractions. Beta-alanine likely offers the most benefit for track workouts and short-distance races, or the sprint burst at the end of an endurance event.
- Creatine – This is a compound that is stored in the muscles. Your body can make some creatine each day, and then you also get creatine through foods you eat and supplements you take. It is strongly associated with improvements in strength training. It may offer a slight edge with short, repeated sprint running. It probably doesn’t help with distance running performance (but may have some recovery applications).
- Nitric oxide precursors (i.e. L-citrulline, arginine, dietary nitrates) – Nitric oxide helps open up the blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow through to the muscles. Precursors are components used in supplements that help increase nitric oxide production in the body. Research has shown that dietary nitrate supplementation via beetroot juice improves running performance. However, recent meta-analyses have shown that there does not appear to be a performance benefit for arginine supplementation. For L-citrulline supplementation, the most recent data as a whole does not support a benefit aerobic running performance, though there are some outliers in the research that warrant more studies to be done.
- Amino acids – These are the building blocks of protein, including the protein that makes up your muscles. A recent meta-analysis concluded that branched chain amino acids had negligible effects on performance, but may reduce the perception of muscle soreness after strength training (but inconsistent benefits after running or other endurance workouts).
- Electrolytes – Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. You lose these in sweat during a workout. Some pre-workout supplements will contain these electrolytes, which could play a role in cramping risk (though cramping risk is not isolated to electrolytes; neuromuscular fatigue often plays one of the biggest roles in cramping).
- Carbohydrates – Eating carbohydrates before a long run can help provide energy for the working muscles. Some pre-workouts may contain carbohydrates, but others are artificially sweetened.
Quick tip: As a dietitian, I’m not a huge fan of products that contain a “proprietary blend” of ingredients that doesn’t show exactly how much of each active ingredient is in a portion. For example, if there’s a proprietary blend with caffeine and beta-alanine, but you don’t know how much is in it – how would you know if the amounts are enough to boost performance?
Do pre-workout supplements help runners?
Pre-workout supplements may be helpful, but the benefits depend on which ingredients are used in the product, and whether those ingredients are provided at clinically significant amounts. You’ll need to dive into the label to analyze this.
Actual research on pre-workout supplements are difficult to summarize because of these varying ingredients. Here’s a quick overview of some studies related to running:
- A 2010 study found that a pre-workout supplement with whey protein, creatine, citrulline, ginseng, and caffeine led to improvements in VO2max and lean body mass with high intensity interval run training.
- A 2021 study found that a multi-ingredient pre-workout containing beetroot powder, taurine, beta alanine, and a proprietary blend of mushrooms had an 84% chance of increasing time to fatigue among cross country runners (however note that this was a small study with only 11 athletes).
- A 2023 study among basketball players found no benefit for a pre-workout supplement for sprinting or aerobic performance (but did find improvements in basketball specific movements like agility and jump).
- A 2018 study found that a pre-workout supplement with caffeine, beta alanine, beetroot, amino acid, and other ingredients improved total work completed during a treadmill sprinting test.
- A 2020 study found that a pre-workout supplement containing caffeine, creatine, vitamins, and amino acids improved the number of sprints and time to exhaustion during high intensity interval running bouts on a treadmill.
What does this all mean? Let’s translate into practical terms:
It’s likely that some pre-workout supplements may improve running performance, mostly thanks to the caffeine in the product. If any dietary nitrates from beetroot are present, that may also boost endurance running performance. If the pre-workout contains carbohydrate, these may also support performance by providing fuel for the run.
If you’re doing sprinting workouts or short distance racing, beta alanine may offer a boost in performance too. Some – but not all – research also suggests creatine may offer a slight edge for repeated sprints.
If you’re a runner doing strength training, creatine in a pre-workout may help improve strength training performance and gains, and the amino acids in a pre-workout may help reduce the perception of muscle soreness after a workout. However, these same benefits are not applicable for endurance running.
What are potential side effects?
While many of the ingredients discussed are safe to use in moderate doses, they can cause some side effects:
- Gastrointestinal upset – Caffeine in a pre-workout can cause stomach upset and diarrhea in some people. Test using it during training runs where you know there’s a restroom available. If you end up feeling like you need to poop on your run every time you use a pre-workout, it’s probably best to skip it!
- Tingling – If you’re using a pre-workout supplement that contains beta-alanine, you may notice a tingling or “pins and needles” sensation. This is a harmless, though annoying, side effect. You can reduce the odds of experiencing this side effect by taking divided doses of beta alanine throughout the day.
- Jitters – Caffeine in a pre-workout can make some people feel jittery, nervous, or anxious.
- Fast heart beat – Occasionally, high levels of caffeine in a pre-workout may make people feel like their heart is racing or that they’re having heart palpitations.
- Sleep issues – Taking a pre-workout with caffeine too close to bedtime can cause trouble falling or staying asleep. Sleep is so important for athletes and is key to recovery and training adaptations, so it’s not something you want to skimp out on.
- Risk of banned substances – If you’re a runner at a collegiate or elite level that is tested for banned substances, keep in mind that you are responsible for everything you put in your body. If you choose to use a pre-workout supplement, keep in mind that research has shown they are occasionally contaminated with banned substances. You can minimize this risk by looking for supplements that are tested by organizations like Informed Sport or NSF Certified for Sport. These third party tests help validate that the supplements only contain the ingredients listed on the label.
In addition, keep in mind that other ingredients present in a pre-workout may also cause side effects not mentioned above.
Do you need a pre-workout?
No (though some folks may find benefit in taking one).
If we think of a pyramid model of running nutrition, the base would be a solid everyday diet, the middle would be exercise-specific fueling (i.e. pre-workout meal, fueling during a run), and the very top of the pyramid would be supplements. Most athletes like to jump to the top, but it’s better to focus your energy on the rest of the pyramid, at least until you have a solid handle on those.
After that, it’s up to you as to whether you’d like to try a pre-workout.
In my opinion as a dietitian, I often find it’s better for folks to try individual supplements. You can choose the ingredients with the most benefit for your runs, rather than purchasing a product with additional ingredients you may not need.
This is also helpful for monitoring tolerance of a particular product (instead of teasing out what ingredient is bothering you in a multi-ingredient pre-workout).
Plus, some ingredients are needed at different time frames for maximum effectiveness. For example, caffeine is usually best about an hour before a workout, while beet nitrates are best about 2-3 hours before. If you take them separately, you can time them in line with this, but taking in a pre-workout requires timing all together.
Also, some of the ingredients in a pre-workout supplement, like beta-alanine and creatine, are not time dependent at all – they don’t need to be consumed right before a workout. For an ingredient like beta-alanine, it can be beneficial to divide doses throughout the day rather than ingest them all at once in a pre-workout in order to minimize the likelihood of the tingling side effect. This is hard to do with a pre-workout.
What could you try instead of a pre-workout?
If you want to experiment with supplements, here are some individual ideas you might try instead of one pre-workout. It’s always good to start with one at a time to assess tolerance, and of course check with a doctor or dietitian prior to starting any supplement (as some may be contraindicated with certain medical conditions).
- Drink a large coffee about 1 hour before your run. Assuming a 16 ounce coffee contains around 200 mg of caffeine, that would clock in around the lower end of the effective dose range for caffeine for a 150 pound athlete (you may need more or less depending on your weight and genetics). This gets you that well-researched ergogenic caffeine, and coffee itself may have other health benefits. If you prefer, you can use another caffeine product instead, but I recommend avoiding pure anhydrous caffeine (as small mismeasurements can have very negative consequences).
- Try a concentrated beetroot juice shot about 2-3 hours before a run. These are small containers that have concentrated down the dietary nitrates, which make them more feasible than guzzling down a huge glass of beet juice – though you can certainly do the later if you prefer!
- If you’re regularly doing speed training and/or preparing for short distance races, you might also try a beta-alanine supplement. Most research studies use divided dosages of 2 to 6 grams per day of beta alanine, and the ISSN position paper noted effects with 4 to 6 grams per day – so those ranges may provide helpful guidance for where to start.
- If you’re also doing strength workouts or repeated sprinting as part of your training, you might also try creatine. Typically, you’d start with a loading dose around 20 grams per day for about 5 days, followed by 3 to 5 grams per day afterwards to maintain levels. However, if you have upcoming races in the near future, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition notes that it may be better to do low dose supplementation of 3-5 grams per day over 4 weeks rather than the loading phase. This modified protocol may reduce the impact of water retention/weight gain on an upcoming event.
The Bottom Line
A pre-workout supplement may help boost running performance, but the benefits depend on the specific ingredient profile and the amounts of those ingredients used. Runners may find individual supplements are better options that can be targeted towards their specific needs, based on their training regimen, tolerance, and timing.
Pre-workout supplements and individual supplements may come with side effects, so be sure to monitor those. And if you’re an athlete tested for banned substances, use extra caution with selecting supplements, and look for third party testing if you do decide to use them.
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