Coffee Vs. Pre Workout: Which is Better for Running?

Coffee vs. pre-workout – the new debate about which to take before exercise. Maybe you’ve seen your friends or influencers touting the benefits of pre workout, but is it right for you? The advantages include caffeine, among other substances, but is it really necessary to obtain caffeine through a pre workout before a run?

This post will review what the research says and how to evaluate the benefits to risk ratio of coffee vs. pre workout for caffeine before running. 

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Caffeine is widely acknowledged as one of the most effective ergogenic aids out there, meaning it can give your workout a pretty significant boost. It has been proven to improve both endurance and sprint performance, decrease pain perception, and increase focus.

Basically, regardless of the distance you’re running or why your workouts are lacking, caffeine can help.

Research recommends about 200 milligrams of caffeine 30-60 minutes before exercise, or more specifically, 0.9-1.4 milligrams of caffeine per pound of body weight.

While this is the recommendation for exercise, it’s best to stay under 4 milligrams per pound of body weight per day to monitor some of the other effects that caffeine can have.

Caffeine Side Effects

Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can increase heart rate, blood pressure, as well as anxiety. If you are prone to any of these conditions, it is best to talk to a health professional about your caffeine intake, or perhaps include some decaffeinated versions.

Caffeine can also affect sleep and may cause digestive issues for some. Therefore, planning coffee before a run may require some strategic planning.

Another important consideration is that the body can become desensitized to caffeine if you’re regularly consuming high amounts. In these cases, cycling caffeine—taking time off from consumption, then resuming—could be beneficial.

Choosing Coffee Vs Pre-Workout

When it comes to getting your caffeine, the two most common choices are coffee or a pre-workout supplement, and which one you pick can often seem complicated.

Coffee is widely-available, cheaper and only supplies caffeine. Pre-workout supplements, on the other hand, are pricier, popular among gym-goers and contain a variety of ingredients.

So in terms of coffee vs pre workout for runners, is one better than the other?

Coffee is not just for athletes, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective for performance. The average 8-ounce cup has about 95 milligrams of caffeine, so 1.5-2 cups before training is the ideal boost for most athletes.

The fitness world often views coffee as inferior to pre-workout because it does not contain the other supplemental ingredients that pre-workout does.

However, many of these other ingredients can be obtained through the diet or are not necessary in large amounts for runners. So, is a pre workout for running really necessary?

A Breakdown of Pre-Workout

Pre-workout supplements pack in about 150-300 milligrams of caffeine per serving, but they also contain additional ingredients that aid performance, such as nitric oxide precursors, creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine, branched-chain amino acids and more.

However, many pre-workout supplements are made from a proprietary blend (up to 50%), meaning the amounts of ingredients contained are not disclosed.

Here’s a quick review of each of the other ingredients and insight into supplements for runners.

  • Nitric oxide cursors such as beetroot juice, L-arginine and L-citrulline are vasodilators, meaning they improve blood flow to the limbs. This helps to increase oxygen and nutrient transport to muscles, ultimately enhancing cardiovascular performance. Nitric oxide can be extremely beneficial for runners, considering the sport relies heavily on the cardiorespiratory system.
  • Creatine monohydrate has been trending among weight lifters for a while, but it’s becoming increasingly popular with runners. Creatine is stored in skeletal muscle and associated with higher energy production and muscular strength as well as better recovery time. Though it is a common ingredient in pre-workout supplements, creatine is arguably more effective when taken 20-30 minutes after exercise, alongside carbohydrates.
  • Beta-alanine is a derivative of the amino acid, alanine. Supplementation increases the muscles’ ability to buffer hydrogen, which increases time to exhaustion. However, beta-alanine supplementation is most beneficial for high-intensity exercise and fast twitch muscles, so endurance runners may not benefit extensively from it.
  • Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are essential for rebuilding muscle. For experienced weight lifters, supplementing with BCAAs before a workout can aid in muscle repair and growth. Endurance exercise, like running, causes less muscle breakdown than lifting. Therefore, incorporating BCAAs through protein in the diet is still important, but taking BCAAs before running or a workout is not necessary.

More on BCAAs vs creatine for runners here. 

Beyond ergogenic aids, many pre-workout supplements also contain artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols, which can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort during the workout.

Because of this, pre-workout might not be worth it for athletes with sensitive stomachs.

If taking a pre-workout, it’s suggested to take 20-30 minutes before exercise.

Pros and Cons of Pre-Workout

The most obvious pro of pre-workouts is that they, at least to a certain extent, work. Whether you’re struggling with focus or with pushing yourself to the limit, a pre-workout supplement will give you an edge.

However, most of this effect is due to caffeine, so coffee will give you a similar edge.

One con is that, as with all supplements, pre-workouts are not regulated by the FDA. This means that these companies are not held accountable for the product to contain what they claim on the label. Furthermore, there could be banned substances within the containers.

This can be dangerous, especially if you have certain chronic or underlying conditions. Hence, always read ingredient labels and talk to YOUR health provider.

For this reason, if you choose to use a pre-workout supplement, make sure your pick is third-party certified by an organization like NSF or Informed Choice.

Also, combining various ergogenic aids into one supplement can actually minimize the effects of some. For example, taking caffeine and creatine at the same time can cause gastrointestinal issues.

On top of this, caffeine is a diuretic, while creatine requires ample hydration to be absorbed, so taking them together can limit the absorption and effect of creatine. 

Should You Drink Coffee or Pre Workout Before Running?

Can you take a pre workout before a run? Yes, you can. But, balance the reasoning behind it and your goals with the pros and cons above, and know that it may change your long run fueling strategy or accompany it.  

If you don’t like the taste of coffee or would like to up your intake of other ingredients found in pre-workout, trying a pre-workout supplement might be your best bet. It’s hard to beat the convenience of an all-in-one supplement.

Plus, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, some pre-workouts on the market are low-stimulant or stimulant-free. Depending on your health history or goals, these might suit your body better.

However, if your appeal to pre-workout isn’t for the taste or convenience, coffee (or matcha, if coffee isn’t your thing) and other whole foods can help your body obtain the same nutrients.

For example, beets and pomegranates are packed with nitric oxide. Meat, poultry and seafood are high in creatine, BCAAs and beta-alanine. So, knowing what to eat before a run and after a workout can decrease the need for supplements. 

Ultimately, the choice between coffee and pre-workout for your caffeine source is completely up to you. Experiment with different whole foods or supplements to find the best fit for you. Remember, all bodies are unique, so another athlete’s regimen might not work for you.

Regardless of whether you choose coffee and whole foods or a pre-workout supplement, there are ample options on the market that can help you perform your best.

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Kreider RB, Kalman DS, Antonio J, Ziegenfuss TN, Wildman R, Collins R, Candow DG, Kleiner SM, Almada AL, Lopez HL. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 13;14:18. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z. PMID: 28615996; PMCID: PMC5469049.

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