Pre-Workout for Runners – Is it Worth the Hype?

If you have ever been to the gym, ran with a running group, or participated in a race, you more than likely have seen athletes consuming pre-workout supplements.  Maybe you have wondered to yourself, is pre-workout for runners?

Pre-workout can take the form of coffee, green tea, energy drinks, or a variety of other mixes, drinks, or pills.  There are plenty of pre-workout powders and drinks readily available on the market.

So what about pre-workout for runners? Does it have the same effects on you as a runner as it does for other athletes?  Will it make you faster, healthier, or give you an energy boost?  And is it even safe?

This post will describe what pre-workout is, review some potential positive and negative effects of the supplement, discuss safety, and use in running.

Ready to learn more?! Let’s go!

What is pre-workout?

So what is pre-workout? Pre-workout is a supplement that should be taken 30-60 minutes before working out.

The formula of each brand of pre-workout is going to vary, but they typically will contain caffeine along with some additional ingredients such as amino acids, electrolytes, vitamins, among various others.

It is important to realize that pre-workout is a supplement.  So why does this matter? It matters because unlike prescription drugs, supplements are not closely regulated by the FDA.  

So what does this mean?  This means that nutrition supplements do not need to go through clinical testing or trials by the FDA to be able to be sold.  Which means, a pre-workout supplement does not need to go through clinical testing prior to being made available to consumers.

It is important to realize that claims made by the supplement manufacturer are not necessarily backed by research, or evidence based. Many supplements will have statements on their products claiming to do a number of things, but these statements sometimes are nothing but a marketing strategy. This does not mean that all supplements are falsely advertising, it’s just important to be aware of.

What are some potential effects of pre-workout for running?

Caffeine, which is often the main ingredient in pre-workout, can potentially have some positive effects on your run.  Due to caffeine being a stimulant, exercise can feel easier after consumption.

When exercise (in this case running) feels easier, it can lead to the runner going out there and putting in more miles.  More miles in theory can improve overall performance over time.

There is evidence that caffeine can improve the concentration in runners. Improved concentration can lead to improved overall performance.

Pre-workout can also help supplement some missing components of a runner’s diet.  Depending on what the athlete eats throughout the day, the pre-workout supplement can provide some additional nutrition.

Is pre-workout effective for running?

The question remains, does pre-workout actually make you a better runner?  The jury is still out with this one, although research is evolving, there is not a yes or no answer to this question right now.

As time goes on, and pre-workout continues to be studied in runners there may be a better, or at least more concrete, answer to this question.  Continue to look out for up to date evidence-based information on this topic.

Is pre-workout safe to take prior to a run?

In theory, pre-workout should be safe to take prior to a run.  As mentioned before, it is important that you recognize and are aware of all of the ingredients in the pre-workout.  

It is also important to see how much caffeine is in the pre-workout.  Especially if you typically stay away from caffeine, ingesting a large amount in your pre-workout may cause some unwanted side effects.

Some side-effects that may occur include feeling jittery or anxious, gi distress, headaches, restlessness, increased heart rate, and irritability.  These side effects may be more evident if you typically avoid caffeine.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially if you are a collegiate or professional runner, is to closely keep track of what is in all supplements you are taking, including pre-workout.  There are banned substance lists that need to be followed by the athletes.

As of 2021, when this post was published, caffeine was on the banned list for NCAA.  The amount that would need to be consumed by an athlete for caffeine to show up in the urine test is about 500 mg in 24 hours.  

While this may seem like a lot, some pre-workout supplements may have above this limit in their product.  It is imperative to read labels, and understand what you are consuming.  Talk with a registered dietitian or health expert if you have any doubts prior to taking a supplement.

Is pre-workout for runners?

Now for the final question, is pre-workout for runners?  Like most things nutrition, the answer to this question is, it depends. There are multiple factors that go into deciding if you should take any supplement, including pre-workout. 

The first thing you should look at is what your typical nutrition plan looks like, and if you think there is a gap anywhere that pre-workout could fill.  

As an example, let’s say you are in marathon training.  A question to ask yourself is if you are going out for a long run, what does your nutrition plan look like?  Ideally runners are consuming some sort of carbohydrate and hydration during a run longer than 90 minutes. 

In that case, if you are following a healthy nutrition plan you may be consuming a gel during your run. Many gels will contain caffeine and electrolytes in addition to the carbohydrates.  Do you need the additional caffeine and benefits from the pre-workout?

Another thing to look at is how long and intense is your run going to be?  If you are going out and grabbing only a few miles, is pre-workout necessary to support this?

One final thing to consider is can you fill any perceived gaps in your diet with whole food options.  Would a cup of coffee or tea suffice as a caffeine fix?

All these questions are things that you as a runner would need to answer for yourself.  There is no cookie cutter answer, just as there is no one size fits all nutrition plan for all runners to follow. 

Conclusion

Pre-workout is a supplement that is made to be taken prior to exercise.  Typically this is seen with weight lifting, and other gym sessions, but the question arises about whether pre-workout should be used for a runner.

Supplements can be tricky, it is important to do your research and trust the brand you are taking.  It is also important to know what the supplements contain, so you know what you are putting into your body.

The ergogenic effects of pre-workout are primarily due to caffeine.  Caffeine can be great to take prior to a long endurance run, as it can make the perceived effort seem less.

It is important to take a look at your current nutrition plan and determine what works well for you.  Caffeine can have some unwanted side effects, and everyone responds differently to the stimulant.

As always, consult with a registered dietitian if you have additional questions regarding whether pre-workout is for you.  

As a final thought, if you are a runner who uses pre-workout in their training please leave a comment below! I want to learn more from first-hand experience with what works for others.

As always, happy running!

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