Should You Take a Preworkout Supplement Before a Run?

Here’s what you need to know about the popular powders filling everyone’s checkout carts.

Let’s face it: As much as we’d like our days to revolve around the next run, the reality is we all have a lot to get done off the road. Which means, sometimes, you might want a little boost to help supercharge your workout. Enter: preworkout supplements.

The powders and pills have become increasingly more popular over the years, with the global market being valued at 12.6 billion in 2019—and an expected annual growth rate of 8.3 percent until 2027.

But what’s in these preworkout supplements? And should you take one before a run? We tapped experts—and dug into available research—to find the answers to these questions (and more).

What are preworkout supplements?

Simply put, preworkouts are dietary supplements designed to help boost energy and increase performance while you exercise, says Jana Wolff, director of nutrition at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. They usually come in the form of powders, premade drinks, chews, or capsules, and are taken about 30 minutes before you start your workout.

What ingredients do they usually have?

Not all preworkouts are the same, so the ingredients in each one can vary pretty drastically, says Shelley Rael, a registered dietitian. In fact, a 2019 study of the top 100 commercially available preworkouts found nearly half of all ingredients were a proprietary blend. “This could mean virtually anything,” Rael says. “Ingredients and amounts contained in the supplement may not be listed under the mask of this term.”

That said, preworkouts tend to have at least one stimulant, such as caffeine, a small amount of carbohydrate for fuel, and a mix of amino acids to minimize muscle breakdown and increase energy production, Rael says. Some might have artificial sweeteners, too, making them more palatable to drink without added calories or sugar.

What are the benefits of taking preworkout supplements?

More than anything: convenience. “A preworkout is quick and easy, and [provides] extra energy before a workout,” Wolff says. “This is especially important if fatigue prevents you from training.”

Then, depending on the ingredients, preworkouts may have different effects on the body. Some may have creatine to help improve strength, performance, and recovery, for example, while others may have caffeine to help increase power output, mental clarity, and focus, Wolff adds.

That said, the ingredients commonly included in preworkouts may not necessarily have enough evidence to show efficacy. “In general, most dietary supplements do not have enough research or evidence to support a benefit to sport,” says Melissa Majumdar, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Whole foods are the best place to start, looking for a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat—and of course plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

Still, there is some research that points toward potential benefits of taking a preworkout. One small study, for example, had 24 recreational athletes either take a placebo drink or a preworkout containing caffeine, creatine, and amino acids before doing a HIIT routine three times a week for three weeks. Researchers saw a jump in training volume and VO2 max in those who took the preworkout. Athletes in the placebo group (who just did HIIT) still saw increases in VO2 max, but at 2.9 percent compared to the 10.3 percent of those taking the preworkout.

Another study had 13 male athletes either take a placebo or a caffeinated preworkout before performing a variety of fitness tests to analyze impacts on upper and lower body power, upper body strength, and anaerobic power. There, the researchers saw improvements in anaerobic power for those who took the preworkout. However, they saw no significant change in upper and lower body power or upper body strength.

Are there any downsides to preworkout supplements?

First and foremost, dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way drugs are regulated. “They are considered ‘post-market regulation,’ which means accuracy of the label or safety of the contents are not reviewed by a regulatory agency before they are sold,” Majumdar says. “This means no dietary supplement can be guaranteed to be safe, or that all ingredients listed on the label are accurate.”

Some of the ingredients in preworkouts may not agree with you, either. “They could increase restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia, or heart rate and blood pressure,” Wolff says.

Case in point: The Cleveland Clinic says many preworkouts have 150mg to 300mg of caffeine (the latter being the equivalent of nearly three 8-ounce cups of coffee). Research shows too much of the stimulant can cause negative side effects, like poor sleep hygiene, (temporarily) high blood pressure, and increased anxiety.

Lastly, if you’re on any other medications, Wolff says it’s important to check with your doctor before taking a preworkout to make sure none of the ingredients will cause an interaction.

So, are preworkouts safe?

Short answer: There’s really no definitive way to tell. That said, using a product certified through a third-party regulatory body, such as NSF International, “significantly reduces the risk of contaminated products, or getting an unknown, unsafe, or banned ingredient in the supplement,” Majumdar says.

You can check products on NSF’s Certified for Sport website, or download their app and scan the preworkout’s barcode when you spot the NSF Certified for Sport label on the product.

Do I really need a preworkout supplement anyway?

Before taking any supplements, Wolff suggests evaluating other factors that could be impacting how you feel before, during, and after a run. “In general, getting adequate sleep, hydration, balanced meals during the day, recovering from exercise, and regulating stress can all be helpful and produce similar results,” she says. “Plus, these are all factors you can control, and that can improve your life and energy overall.”

Majumdar also recommends looking at the 3 Fs when it comes assessing what you need to feel better:

Frequency of eating. Are you spreading calories evenly throughout the day to make sure you have adequate energy for afternoon or evening workouts?

››Fuel intake. Undereating can leave you sluggish, delay recovery, and put added pressure on the immune system. Overeating can cause gastrointestinal issues, including cramping or irregular bowel movements. And eating the wrong balance of foods, such as too much protein and too little carbs, can leave glycogen reserves low, causing soreness and impaired recovery. Ask yourself: Are you fitting in enough time for a preworkout breakfast, even for early morning sessions? Plugging in calories when workouts last more than an hour? Eating properly after to fuel recovery?

››Fluid intake. The general rule of thumb is to drink 590mL of water every hour, and to use your pee as your guide—light yellow is the goal. Consider sports drinks for endurance workouts going more than an hour or when conditions increase sweat rates (like heat, sun, and humidity). Weighing yourself before and after a workout can also offer guidance, as you want to stay as close to the preworkout weight as possible. For every pound lost during a workout, you should drink 20 ounces to rehydrate.

What are some alternatives to preworkout supplements?

First, try to fit in a full meal three to four hours before a workout whenever possible, Majumdar says. As you get closer to a workout, “drop down on the fat and protein intake for quicker digestion and more usable energy,” she says.

Ideally, your meal should contain about 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrates and 30 grams of lean protein, Majumdar continues. “This could look like a tuna sandwich with a piece of fruit and pretzels, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Greek yoghurt and trail mix.”

If a full meal just isn’t happening, something small and light one to two hours before the run can help. Think half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a sports bar (look for one higher in carbs and lower in protein and fat), a bowl of cereal with a banana, or a smoothie, Majumdar says.

At crunch time—a.k.a. less than an hour before your intense workout—opt for fluids only. “A sports drink or gel, bean, or block for some quick carbs will do,” Majumdar says.

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