Pre-workout supplements are all the rage. You have likely seen them on social media or when you shop for sports nutrition. Or, maybe your gym friends claim that pre-workout supplements are the magic bullet for energized workouts. Is pre-workout for running a performance game-changer, or is it a supplement that you can skip?
Let’s talk a look at what pre-workout supplements actually are and the science behind their ingredients – and then delve into whether pre-workout for running is beneficial, neutral, or detrimental.
What Is Pre-Workout?
A pre-workout supplement is an umbrella term for supplements (often powders) designed to increase energy during exercise. The ingredients included in pre-workout blends vary based on the brand and formulation.
Importantly, multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements are not heavily studied. Most brands have their own unique formulations. Instead, most of the research focuses on individual ingredients or two ingredients combined (such as beta-alanine and creatine). Almost all pre-workout brands are different in their ingredients and dosage.
What Ingredients Are in Pre-Workout?
Common ingredients in a pre-workout supplement include:
- Beta-alanine: Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. When taken consistently, intracellular buffering improves. Improved intracellular buffering means that you get less burning sensation from fatigue – and therefore improved performance – during intense exercise lasting 1-4 minutes.
- L-theanine: L-theanine is a non-essential amino acid, often found in tea. When combined with caffeine, L-theanine may enhance cognitive function.
- Caffeine: Caffeine functions as a central nervous system stimulant. Caffeine offers performance benefits for both endurance and strength athletes.
- Creatine: Creatine is a highly effective and safe supplement for increasing strength and muscle size. While it is very beneficial for resistance-trained athletes, its benefits for endurance athletes (particularly those who do not lift weights) are not fully studied. (For more on creatine for runners, reference this article.)
- HMB: Beta-hydroxy-beta-methyl butyrate (HMB) is derived from leucine (a key amino acid in muscle protein synthesis). HMB may enhance recovery from high-intensity exercise, particularly in untrained individuals.
- B-vitamins: The various B-vitamins play essential roles in energy production. Many supplements include B-vitamins on the claims that B-vitamins will help energy levels.
- BCAAs: Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three amino acids abundantly found in muscles (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). The theory of BCAA supplementation is that these three amino acids may reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness. Another theory of BCAAs’ ergogenic effect is that it blocks neurotransmitters, which reduces fatigue in endurance athletes. However, this theory is disputed.
- Beetroot powder: Studies indicate that beetroot supplementation can enhance running economy and improve time to exhaustion in exercise lasting 12-40 min (under VO2max but over lactate threshold).
Some of these ingredients, such as beta-alanine and caffeine, are more effective when combined. This is why pre-workouts are unique, since they combine multiple ingredients. However, more ingredients in a supplement are not always better.
Do Pre-Workout Ingredients Work for Runners?
That was a long list of ingredients – and it is not an exhaustive list! The supplements may sound enticing, so let’s look at what the research says about how they do (or do not) benefit endurance athletes specifically.
While beta-alanine is an effective supplement, it is not highly beneficial for long-distance runners. If you were a track athlete competing in the 100m to 1500m, you may see benefits from beta-alanine supplementation; but that buffering mechanism won’t help you much during a marathon.
Likewise, creatine is beneficial for runners who lift weights and train at a high volume. If you are not lifting weights in addition to running, you may not see benefits from creatine supplementation.
Other ingredients, such as BCAAs and B-vitamins, may not be as beneficial as marketing claims. If you take a protein powder, you are already getting BCAAs. For example, unless you are deficient in B-12, you may not notice any real difference from supplementation. HMB is most beneficial for untrained athletes, so if you have been training for years, you may not notice any difference.
The most effective ingredient for runners in pre-workout is caffeine. Caffeine is one of the most effective supplements for runners. If you notice a boost from taking pre-workout for running, you are likely experiencing the benefits of caffeine.
Importantly, not all pre-workout supplements contain effective doses of the ingredients. For example, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends a dose of 3 grams per day of HMB; however, very few supplements contain that effective dose.
Does Pre-Workout Provide Enough Carbohydrates?
Many pre-workout supplements contain little to no carbohydrates. Gnarly Nutrition includes 1 gram of carbohydrates in a serving of pre-workout; Ascent offers 5 grams of carbohydrates.
Runners need carbohydrates for energy production. If more than 2-3 hours has passed since your last meal, or you are running in the morning, you want to eat carbohydrates before you run. Carbohydrates provide energy for a productive training session and reduce muscle breakdown for quicker recovery.
The general recommendations are 25-50 grams of carbohydrates for workouts shorter than 70 minutes and 50-100 grams (roughly 1-2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight) for workouts lasting longer than 70 minutes.
Pre-workouts for runners do not support those carbohydrate needs. If you take a pre-workout supplement, be sure to eat easily digestible carb-rich snacks as well.
Reasons for Skip Pre-Workout Before Running
There are many reasons for runners to skip a pre-workout supplement. As noted above, they are not incredibly effective for endurance athletes. They do not contain carbohydrates or electrolytes. If you want caffeine, you can often consume it in the form of coffee, tea, or a sports drink with caffeine.
Many pre-workouts are not third-party tested. Lack of third-party testing means that you do not know exactly what the supplement contains. The supplement may be contaminated with heavy metals or contain unlisted ingredients. (Read here for more information on how to pick safe supplements.)
Side effects can occur with supplementation, and pre-workouts are no exception. Depending on the formulation, some pre-workouts may cause gastrointestinal upset in some runners. Individual reactions to different ingredients will vary, but it’s important to know that the risk exists. Some other ingredients, such as beta-alanine, may cause tingling sensations.
Finally, pre-workout supplements are expensive. Brands such as Gnarly and Ascent cost $45 for 30 servings. More than likely, a pre-workout is not the only supplement a runner would purchase. There are energy gels, electrolyte drinks, protein powders, collagen supplements, probiotics, omega-3 supplements, and others; the cost adds up.
Since pre-workout is not directly beneficial for running performance, it’s not worth the cost for a majority of athletes. Save the money to spend on gels or other products that do directly improve performance!
What Runners Can Use Instead of Pre-Workout:
If you want a boost before your next run, there are alternatives to pre-workout for runners. Carbohydrates, electrolytes, and caffeine are all guaranteed to enhance performance. If you combine the three of those together before a run, you will feel energized and have a productive workout. Think of those three things as the runner’s pre-workout mix!
For a morning runner, a combination of carbohydrates, electrolytes, and caffeine could be a couple of graham crackers, a cup of coffee or tea, and 8-12 oz of sports drink (such as Skratch Labs). Some sports drinks contain caffeine, so that may work if you do not like coffee. (Your carbohydrate options are not limited to graham crackers; here are more ideas for pre-run snacks.)
If you run in the evening, you may opt to forgo caffeine to avoid sleep disruptions. Instead, a small carb-based snack (such as graham crackers or a banana) and an electrolyte drink will prepare you for your workout.
Is Pre-Workout Bad For Runners?
Pre-workout is not bad for runners (so long as you choose a high-quality supplement). However, it simply isn’t necessary! That said, some runners may like pre-workout as the means to getting in caffeine before a run.
If you really like pre-workout before your runs, you can continue to take it. Be mindful of
- picking a third-party tested product
- avoiding proprietary blends (they do not disclose all ingredients or doses)
- Adding carbs!
Is Pre-workout Essential for Runners?
Is pre-workout for running a necessity? No. You can use it if you like it. However, you are better off spending your sports nutrition budget on gels and electrolyte drinks designed for endurance performance. Additionally, you’ll see more benefits before a run (and spend less money) if you opt for simple carbs, electrolytes, and caffeine before a run.
Disclaimer: I am a certified sport nutritionist from the International Society of Sport Nutrition and a certified running coach. However, I am not a registered dietitian. Please consult an RD for individual guidance on supplements.