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Do Runners Need Pre-Workout?

We asked a registered dietitian why pre-workout drinks are so trendy and whether or not runners really need them.

Photo: Getty Images

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The world of sports supplements and athletic performance aids for runners is becoming increasingly complex. What was once limited to Gatorade and energy gels has exploded into entire sections of supplement stores and websites filled with all sorts of powdered mixes, drinks, bars, gels, beans, chews, foods, and even various bottles of capsules and pills. The question of how to get the most out of our bodies and become the best runners we can has been answered by supplement companies.

One of the newer performance supplements to enter the nutrition market are pre-workout drinks and powders. Pre-workout has mostly been touted for weight lifters and, for runners, may not be as common as electrolyte drinks and energy gels. But many runners are turning to pre-workouts in training and racing to give them a little extra boost. If you have found yourself wondering if swapping your basic water or sports drink for a pre-workout will improve your own running performance, keep reading to learn the basics of pre-workouts for runners and whether pre-workout supplements actually work.

What is a Pre-Workout Drink?

Pre-workout drinks, powders, and supplements are sports performance aids designed to be taken shortly before you run or work out to give you a performance benefit or “edge.” If you’ve ever taken pre-workout, you’re probably familiar with the boost in energy.

“The potential benefits include increased blood flow to the muscles, reduced pain response, improved mental stamina, and muscular endurance,” explains Stephanie Hnatiuk, a registered dietician. “Basically, they allow us to run faster or for longer without tiring—without muscle (or mental) fatigue.”

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The specific ingredients and formulations vary, but pre-workouts for runners often contain caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, B vitamins, and/or branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), because these ingredients are thought to provide a quick boost of energy, prevent glycogen depletion, and increase mental focus. 

Hnatiuk says that most of the time, runners do not need to use a pre-workout supplement. “Not only are some of the ingredients unproven to even work that well (or, have side effects that can be a performance crusher), but not all of the active ingredients will work for every runner,” she says. That boost you may get initially can turn to jitters, tingles, and eventually, a crash.

What to Look for in a Pre-Workout for Running

If you still want to see if pre-workout can move the needle on your performance, there’s a few more things you should know.

To start, it should be taken approximately 30–60 minutes before your workout. In case you react poorly, as with trying new foods, shoes, or gear, it’s always best to try something for the first time in training, not on race day. 

Hnatiuk advises runners who are interested in trying a pre-workout supplement to start with simple, single-ingredient products. This will help you determine if the pre-workout agrees with your body and works well for you. It will also help you dial in the dosage that suits you best. If you jump in with a multi-ingredient pre-workout supplement with a bunch of different things in it, it’s hard to tease out the culprit if you react poorly. “For example, choose just caffeine, or a beet juice product, rather than something with a great big list of ingredients,” suggests Hnatiuk.

Wherever possible, also look for FDA-regulated products, organic ingredients, clear dosing instructions, transparency in labeling and ingredients, and pre-workouts with no artificial colors, sweeteners, or chemicals. 

Examples of pre-workout powders for runners include Run Fit Runner’s Performance Mix, 6AM RUN Marathon Pre-Workout Powder, and Garden of Life Organic Plant-Based Energy + Focus Pre-Workout Powder.

The Downsides of Pre-Workout Drinks

As with most supplements, there are some potential downsides to pre-workouts that runners should be aware of.

Pre-workout drinks can cause GI distress in some runners.

Cramping, nausea, diarrhea, and bloating can occur from some of the ingredients and formulations used in pre-workout drinks for runners. “Caffeine and sodium bicarbonate are two in particular that can be responsible for this,” says Hnatiuk. “This means any potential performance boost you might get will be out the window when you’re sidelined with GI distress. Many pre-workout drink mixes also use artificial sweeteners, which again can cause digestive issues in some people.”

Pre-workouts for runners may not work.

Some pre-workouts for runners may not be effective for you. For example, most pre-workouts for runners contain caffeine, and some people are either unaffected by caffeine or find it actually causes fatigue, which boils down to how your body metabolizes caffeine. Knowing your own reaction can help you determine if a commercial pre-workout supplement will potentially improve your running or not.

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Pre-workout supplements may not be safe.

Particularly if you are a competitive runner and subject to drug testing, it may be wise to steer clear of pre-workout supplements, as many contain “proprietary blends” and undisclosed ingredients and dosages, which may contain banned compounds. Moreover, for any runner, not all pre-workout supplements are FDA-cleared, so they may not be safe at high doses or for long-term use.

Alternatives to Pre-Workouts for Runners

You don’t have to consume a pre-workout drink before your run to get the energy boost you’re looking for, and in fact, there are simple alternatives that are likely to be just as effective and less disruptive to your digestive system. 

According to Hnatiuk, the best pre-workout aid for runners is carbohydrates. “Consuming enough carbs as a runner will have a much more consistent and dramatic effect on performance than trying to get a performance edge from a supplement. This is because carbohydrates are the direct fuel that our muscles need to perform,” says Hnatiuk. “There is nothing else that can do what carbohydrates can when it comes to improving our running potential.”

Moreover, she advises all runners to focus on ensuring they are doing everything they can in terms of getting proper nutrition, optimizing post-exercise recovery, and getting enough sleep before turning to supplements. Ultimately, these fundamentals are where you’re really going to make a notable difference in your performance.

“Supplements are only going to boost performance by a few percentage points,” says Hnatiuk. “This matters a lot when you’re an elite athlete and every millisecond counts, the vast majority of runners will get far more improvement in their performance if they first nail down a great nutrition and hydration strategy for their workouts. Elite athletes are already tuned in to all of those things, so supplements can be the difference-maker for them.”

Ultimately, this is very sound advice for all runners: Dedicate your energy and efforts to ensuring you’re fueling and hydrating your body before and after your runs, as well as during all the hours of the day you’re recovering; consistently engage in an effective post-workout recovery strategy, including mobility work, stretching, and strength training; and make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep per night. Prioritizing the fundamentals of proper training will go much further towards making you a better runner than any pre-workout supplement. 

That said, if you’re pretty dialed into taking care of the basics, a pre-workout can potentially give you a little energy boost for those days you’re really not feeling the pep in your stride you’re hoping for.

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