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There are all sorts of ways to increase your energy before heading out for a run, from coffee, to energy drinks, and even caffeine pills.
However, many of my running clients have wondered whether taking pre-workout supplements can be just as effective and if there are risks associated with it.
So, is it bad to take pre-workout before running? No, it is not bad to take pre-workout before running. Many common pre-workout ingredients, such as caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine, have beneficial effects for runners, including increased energy, focus, and stamina. This can help runners train farther and faster.
If you’re a runner and have never taken pre-workout before, this article will teach you everything you need to know about using pre-workout for running.
- Whether pre-workout is safe for runners
- The pros & cons of taking pre-workout for running
- Tips for taking pre-workout for running
- Things to look for in a pre-workout specifically for running
Is Pre-Workout Safe For Runners?
Yes, pre-workout is safe for runners. The biggest consideration is making sure that your pre-workout supplement does not cause you to exceed the safe limit of 400mg of caffeine in a day. To ensure the safety of any pre-workout supplement, look for products that are third-party certified.
Third-party certification ensures that the supplement actually contains the ingredients stated, in the amounts stated.
You can identify products that are third-party certified by labels or logos from BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group), USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency), NSF, or USP.
The Pros Of Taking Pre-Workout Before Running
Improved Anaerobic Peak Power
Pre-workout supplements with caffeine have been proven to improve anaerobic peak power, which is the primary energy system used in short-duration efforts up to about 75 seconds to 2 minutes, which makes it perfect for race distances of 400m or less.
In the study, participants taking pre-workout were able to achieve 8% higher power output compared to the group taking a placebo.
Increased Time To Exhaustion
Caffeine has also been shown to improve performance in endurance events by increasing the time before runners reach exhaustion by 11%.
As well, beta-alanine, which is another common pre-workout ingredient, has been shown to improve time to exhaustion by 2.5% in a cycling test.
Both these ingredients allow you to increase your training volume, and therefore improve the results of your training. This is great news for distance runners.
Lower Pain & Effort Perception
Caffeine’s action on the brain also means that it blocks receptors that register pain and fatigue.
This means that taking a pre-workout supplement with caffeine increases pain tolerance and also decreases the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) – this allows you to run faster and harder, without it feeling any more challenging or uncomfortable.
In this study, trained runners improved their exercise tolerance (a measurement similar to RPE) by 18% after taking 300mg of caffeine.
Both caffeine and L-theanine (another common pre-workout ingredient) have been shown to increase overall cognitive function, specifically mental focus and mood.
Mindfulness and being able to focus on your training are linked to better results.
Most noteworthy, runners who participated in 5-week mindfulness training improved their time to exhaustion by 8% compared to the control group, which shows the value of being able to focus.
Betaine is a pre-workout ingredient that is known for boosting muscular endurance.
College athletes saw a more than double improvement in squats they could do after just two weeks of betaine supplementation (1.25g twice per day).
Interestingly, the same study did not see similar improvements in the number of bench press repetitions, so the betaine supplementation specifically benefited the lower body.
This is good news for runners. Being able to squat for longer would also translate to being able to run for longer.
Improved Heat Tolerance
Preliminary studies also link betaine supplementation with improved heat tolerance. This could be a boon for runners who have races in warm or hot weather conditions.
Animal models show that preloading betaine in their diets reduces core temperature and skin temperature, and the authors of the study are looking forward to future studies to find the same results for elite and recreational endurance athletes like runners.
Enhanced Blood Flow To Working Muscles
Both citrulline malate and L-arginine (more common pre-workout ingredients) are linked to enhancing blood flow to working muscles.
Getting more blood flow to the muscles means getting more oxygen to the muscles, which helps with aerobic (with oxygen) energy production.
The aerobic energy system kicks in when the anaerobic energy system can no longer keep up with the demands of the run. This happens around the 2-minute mark, or even sooner in max effort sprints.
So, boosting your aerobic energy system is great for distances of all but the shortest sprints, and getting fitter overall at longer distances will also provide training adaptations in your body to help the shorter sprints, too.
Other common pre-workout ingredients like creatine and branched-chain amino acids are linked to improvements in strength and endurance, which have carryover to your running performance.
Stronger legs are faster legs, and muscular endurance also means that you can sustain a higher pace for longer.
The Drawbacks Of Taking Pre-Workout Before Running
Many pre-workout supplements can cause people to feel jittery and anxious, and this is based almost entirely on caffeine content. Over-consuming caffeine can also lead to a fast heart rate, headaches, and upset stomach or nausea.
Look for pre-workout products with lower caffeine levels (or no caffeine at all, which is often marketed as “stim-free”). I’ll make some recommendations below on the best stim-free pre workout for running if you’re sensitive to caffeine (like me).
Tingling skin, or paresthesia, is a known side effect of the common pre-workout ingredient beta alanine. You could look for pre-workout supplements without beta-alanine, but beta-alanine is a great choice for delaying the onset of fatigue and can increase strength and endurance.
If you want to keep taking beta-alanine for its benefits, you can reduce this tingling sensation by taking smaller doses over the day, or find a sustained-release formula.
This may mean taking it separately as a stand-alone supplement so that you can control the size and timing of the doses, rather than having it included in your pre-workout.
I recommend trying 1g at a time, mixed in at least 250mL of water (or more), 4 times per day to get to a total daily dose of 4g.
Caffeine is a natural laxative, which might have you running…for a porta-a-potty!
Other common pre-workout ingredients can also cause digestive issues, especially if the pre-workout is sweetened with sugar alcohols or other artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which have been linked to bloating, diarrhea and gas.
You can reduce these effects by taking pre-workout with a small amount of food, and looking for options that are unsweetened, or use only natural sweeteners like stevia or actual sugar, which provides a source of carbs as energy for your workout.
- Related Articles: Pre-Workout Sickness: How Common Is It, Causes, & How To Fix
Tips For Taking Pre-Workout Before Running
When you first start taking pre-workout, consider taking a half dose to see how your body reacts, especially if you don’t regularly consume caffeine and this will be your first exposure.
If you’re not sure how the caffeine in pre-workout will affect you, start with small doses at first (50-100mg of caffeine) and experiment by slowly increasing over time.
You will also need to consider other sources of caffeine in your diet (e.g. tea, coffee, soft drinks, or chocolate) so that you know your total daily caffeine intake.
To get a clear sense of the benefits of pre-workout, do not combine it with a cup of coffee, as it will be hard to know how much of your energy is coming from the supplement and how much is coming from your coffee.
Take With The Right Amount of Water
Most pre-workout supplements will state a recommended amount of water for mixing or taking the supplement. Stick to the recommended range. You can try different amounts within the range to see what works best for you in terms of flavor, side effects, and hydration during your run.
If you use too much water, you can feel uncomfortably full. On the other hand, using too little water can make the pre-workout unpleasantly strong-tasting, and the high concentration of ingredients can contribute to feelings of nausea or even diarrhea.
Take With Food
Taking pre-workout on an empty stomach can make it more likely for you to experience unwelcome side effects like nausea or headaches. Consider at least a small pre-workout snack like yogurt and a banana before you go for your run.
Should You Take Pre-Workout Before Every Run?
Whether you should take pre-workout before every run depends on how often you run, and whether you have other workouts where you are taking pre-workout. You may also have training runs that are specifically slow, easy efforts, which don’t require pre-workout. Whatever the case, do not exceed 2 doses of pre-workout per day or 400mg of caffeine.
If you are working with a coach and/or following a prescribed running plan that calls for certain runs to be at a lower intensity than others, you might want to save pre-workout for only the runs that are to be done at a high intensity such as hill repeats, track sprints, or sustained high pace efforts, or when you really feel like you need a boost to get your run done.
For your “easy runs” such as slow, long-distance runs, much of the point is to keep your body relaxed with a low heart rate. This is not a great time to take a pre-workout if it has stimulating ingredients. Skip the pre-workout for these runs, or take a stimulant-free option.
If you are not following a running plan, but are simply adding it on top of your strength sessions in the gym, consider whether you are already taking pre-workout before you lift weights, and what your primary training goals are.
If you are taking pre-workout before you lift weights to maximize your strength and power, it is not necessarily a good idea to also take pre-workout before a run because running at high intensity will make it harder for your body to recover from the gym, which will negatively impact your strength gains.
Finally, since it’s possible to build up a tolerance to caffeine quite quickly (meaning you’d have to take bigger and bigger doses to feel the effects, and possibly exceed the safe limit of 400mg), it’s not worth taking stimulant pre-workout before every run.
- Is It Bad To Take Pre-Workout Every Day?
- Can You Take Pre-Workout Twice In One Day?
How Long Does Pre-Workout Last?
When talking about how long pre-workout lasts, we mean how long people will continue to feel the stimulating effects. Caffeine is the primary stimulant in most pre-workout, and it reaches peak levels in the body in 1-2 hours and drops to about half within 2.5-7 hours, depending on the person and the type of caffeine.
The amount of time it takes for your body to metabolize caffeine is very individual, and largely determined by your genetics. We all know that one person who can drink a cup of coffee at midnight and have no trouble going to bed right after, and then another friend who is wired from just one shot of espresso at breakfast time.
Plus, the type of caffeine makes a difference. Caffeine anhydrous takes 1-2 hours to reach its peak levels in the body, and drops by half within 2.5 to 4.5 hours. Dicaffeine malate lasts longer, taking 5 to 7 hours to reach 50%.
Keep in mind factors like how tired you are, how long the run is, and how much you’ve had to eat that day, which can all impact your energy levels. Whether you’re still going to be feeling your pre-workout 10 miles into a 15-mile run will depend a lot on the day, you as an individual, and your sleep and nutrition leading up to the run.
What To Look For In A Pre-Workout Supplement For Running
Third Party Certified
First and foremost, look for a pre-workout supplement that is third-party certified and stay away from products with “proprietary blends” that do not state the exact amounts of each ingredient.
If you don’t know for sure what is in the product, or how much of each, you won’t know if you’re getting something that is safe for you, in safe & effective amounts.
Amount & Type(s) Of Caffeine
Since we saw that different types of caffeine “wear off” at different rates, if you have a long run, you might want to look for a pre-workout supplement that contains both caffeine anhydrous and dicaffeine malate for the most sustained effect.
The recommended dose of caffeine for performance is 3-6 mg per kg of body weight. For example, a person weighing 150 lbs (68kg) would need 200-400 mg.
Other Supplement Ingredients
If you’re looking to maximize strength, power, and endurance, look for other popular pre-workout ingredients such as creatine monohydrate (3-5g), beta alanine (4-6g), branched chain amino acids (5-10g), and citrulline malate (8-12g).
Since certain sweeteners can cause digestive distress for some individuals (especially anyone with an underlying condition like IBS), look for products that have only the sweeteners that you know will work for you, or opt for unsweetened options.
My Top Picks
- Transparent Labs Bulk Advanced Pre-Training Formula: 180 mg caffeine anhydrous, 50mg theobromine, 4g BCAAs, 4g beta-alanine, 6g citrulline malate
- Gorilla Mode Pre-Workout: 175 mg caffeine anhydrous, 2.5g creatine monohydrate, 4.5g L-citrulline
- *Stim-free: Swolverine Advanced Pre-Workout Formula: 5g citrulline malate, 3.2g beta alanine
Pre-Workout Alternatives To Take Before Running
A Balanced Pre-Workout Meal or Snack
My top recommendation for pre-workout energy, whether you take a supplement or not, is a balanced pre-workout meal or snack.
The food that we eat is the number one source of energy for our bodies, and no amount of supplements can make up for poor nutrition.
The key is to focus on foods that can be digested quickly and easily to provide energy, and help with hydration and recovery.
This means focusing on lean sources of protein (like whey protein powder or chicken breast) and quick-digesting carbohydrates (like fresh or dried fruit), while keeping fat and fiber intake low, since these slow down digestion.
- Related Article: Does Pre-Workout Help You Lose Weight? What Science Says
A Cup of Coffee
A nice hot cup of joe is considered the original pre-workout by many athletes, especially for those of us who started working out long before the explosion of supplements.
The average cup of brewed coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine, and many people consider it the perfect beverage to pair with their pre-workout meal, especially in the morning.
A Cup of Green Tea
If you don’t like the taste of coffee or if you find that its caffeine content is too high, green tea is a good alternative.
Green tea has about 25 mg of caffeine per 8 oz (1 cup) serving, which is only a quarter of the average cup of coffee.
Plus, green tea also has EGCG, which is a compound that boosts mental focus, alertness, energy and metabolism.
An Energy Drink
Lastly, if you’re looking for a quick option that you can pick up at a local gas station or convenience store, an energy drink like Bang, Monster or Red Bull will also contain stimulants that can give you a burst of energy for your run.
The difference is that these options are less likely to contain other beneficial pre-workout ingredients, and some of them can have very high caffeine levels, so check labels carefully and consider drinking only half a can.
- Related Article: 9 Pre Workout Alternatives That Won’t Make You Crash
Can You Take Pre-Workout Before A Race?
Yes, you can take pre-workout before a race, as long as it does not contain any ingredients that are on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited Substances list. Caffeine is not in this list, but ephedrine and epinephrine (common in supplements marketed as “fat-burning”) are, so pay attention to labels.
If you’re competing at a high level, it’s also worth checking with your race organizers or local athletic governing body to see if there are any restrictions on caffeine or other supplements. Getting drug-tested (especially for caffeine) is much less likely at local community runs (not that that makes it okay to take any prohibited substances just because you won’t be tested!).
It’s not a good idea to try pre-workout for the first time before a race, if you’ve never tried it in training. You won’t know how your body will react, and you don’t want to risk experiencing any negative side effects like nausea, dizziness or digestive distress in the middle of a race.
Instead, make sure that you include pre-workout in your training plan. This is the same as the approach I take for myself and my nutrition clients when we practice race-day nutrition in training runs. It’s a chance to practice eating certain foods and taking supplements at specific times before and during the run, to make sure we have the best possible results on race day.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.