In 2015 I started to experiment more with strength and weight training.
One thing I immediately noticed as I became more ingrained in weight lifting culture is the popularity of pre-workout supplements.
As my analytical mind usually does, I started researching if these supplements were effective, how they worked, and what ingredients were actually useful.
In short, yes, there are definitely some ingredients that can help you improve performance and workout with more intensity and with greater focus (more on that later).
The funny thing is, as a runner I never considered a “pre-workout” supplement.
I might have a cup of coffee and some toast before heading out for a workout, but taking something specific to help boost my workout performance never occurred to me.
That’s when the thought started to kindle in the back of my mind about what ingredients and supplements a runner could use before workouts to help boost performance.
I didn’t do anything with the idea – I just let it kind of mull in the back of my mind.
Then a few months ago I stumbled upon a “pre-workout designed for runners” by 6am Run.
Of course, this sparked my intrigue and I started digging into the ingredients list to see if it might actually be effective.
So, what does a pre-workout for runners look like?
Let’s breakdown the ingredients and look at what the research says about how they may be able to help improve your running and workout performance.
Ideally, we’d want a pre-workout supplement for runners to help us…
- Improve maximal power output (allowing us to run more powerfully with less effort).
- Increase aerobic efficiency (helping us increase VO2max, etc)
- Reduce fatigue (so we can workout harder for longer)
I’ll note that in this context, a pre-workout supplement isn’t the same as fueling for your workout (i.e carbohydrates and glycogen). That’s entirely different subject and greatly depends on your goal race distance. However, we do have a lot of articles on the subject here.
Likewise, the type of pre-workout I am recommending in this article is focused on hard speed sessions like track workouts, VO2max workouts, etc. Tempo sessions and long runs would have a different set of performance requirements and something I am researching as well.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of the ingredients that can help improve workout performance.
This is perhaps the ingredient I was most interested to see in a pre-workout.
In bodybuilding supplements, L-Citrulline Malate is used to improve blood flow so your muscles look bigger. However, when I was doing my initial research I noticed that many of the effects may also translate to aerobic performance (plasma concentration, improved vascular function, etc).
So, I dug into the research a bit more to see if we could find direct improvements to the aerobic system. Turns out, the improvements can be significant.
A study by Bendahan, etc al in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that…
- Citrulline malate ingestion resulted in a significant reduction in the sensation of fatigue
- A 34% increase in the rate of oxidative ATP production during exercise,
- A 20% increase in the rate of phosphocreatine recovery after exercise
This study has been backed up by numerous other studies, concluding that blood flow enhancement is the mechanism by which citrulline mallate is able to improve aerobic performance.
This is another ingredient I was really interested to see in a runner’s pre-workout.
Pre-workout is widely known for its ability to increase strength. It’s why lifters take it; but, what about running improvements?
Well, creatine works by helping increase the store of phosphocreatine, which is the main building block of ATP, the “bank of energy” we use for explosive muscle contractions.
My theory had been that increases in ATP storage would also lead to increased running efficiency for high intensity sprint workouts. So once again I dug into the research to see if creatine can actually help your running.
Well, a 2003 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition demonstrated that creatine supplementation led to a 5% increase in lactate threshold during interval training.
These findings have been confirmed, mainly through a 2019 meta-analysis of existing research on creatine and exercise performance and showed a 7.5% increase in performance in those taking creatine.
Creatine has also been shown to work in conjunction with the carbohydrates diet to raise levels of glycogen stored in the muscle cells, with a recent study in the journal International Society of Sports Nutrition showing a near 20% increase in stored carbohydrates both before and after a two-hour bout of training.
Caffeine is a mainstay when it comes to pre-workout supplements, and it’s no surprise given the overwhelming research and science-backed improvements.
Just as your morning cup of coffee helps you get mentally ready to face the day, research shows that caffeine boosts your mental alertness, improves your mood, and boosts your desire to run hard.
Even better, caffeine reduces your perception of effort, which makes running fast feel easier.
Caffeine has also been shown to enhance your ability to burn fat as a fuel source. Most researchers believe this happens because caffeine increases the number of fatty acids in the blood stream, which increases the speed at which your body can covert fat to usable energy.
Caffeine also enhances reaction time and improves neuromuscular coordination (how fast your brain can send a signal to your muscles to contract and relax). Improved neuromuscular coordination allows your leg muscles to fire faster and more forcefully, which means you’ll be more efficient.
Finally, looking for direct performance improvements, researchers in a 2008 study found that runners who used caffeine prior to their 5k race improved by 1.0 to 1.1 percent.
This means a 20-minute 5k runner would run 10-13 seconds faster just by using caffeine.
The literature clearly shows that caffeine supplementation before working out can definitely improve performance.
What about other ingredients
The science on exercise performance is always finding new ways we can improve performance.
While there have been other supplements that have shown promise, research is often inconclusive.
For example, beet root juice is often hailed as the ultimate endurance runner’s supplement.
However, as the research continues to grow, we’re finding that beetroot juice does not quite live up to the hype. There appears to be some benefit if you are an untrained runner, but if you’ve been putting in good training, you’re not likely to see any boost in performance.
We also have to keep in mind that stomach sensitivity is a concern for runners, but not as much for other types of exercise, like cycling or lifting.
Consider beta-alanine. Some studies show that beta-alanine could improve VO2max. However, ingesting beta-alanine produces an itching feeling on your skin (paresthesia) and can irritate your stomach.
Thus, the potential benefits of a supplement like beta-alanine don’t match up with the potential side effects specific to runners.
That said, I am always on the lookout for new research and ideas and looking at other sports/disciplines to see if there’s something we can apply to running.
If you are considering a pre-workout, how and when should you take it?
- First, I don’t recommend that you use a pre-workout before every run. It’s not needed on easy days and the performance benefits don’t translate to long runs.
- My advice is to save it for intense interval or VO2max sessions. You could use it for shorter tempo and threshold sessions as well, but the performance benefits decline the longer your workouts.
- You can also use a pre-workout before races 1-mile to 5k. You can take it before longer races, but again the evidence isn’t as strong.
- Look to take a pre-workout about 30 mins before your workout or race. This gives time for the ingredients to get into your blood stream and begin working.
If you’re interested in trying a pre-workout, I recommend Sprint from 6am Run. They are one of the few, if only, pre-workouts specifically focused on runners.
I’ve found the Sprint to use only effective ingredients with no fillers or patented formulas (which you know I hate) and contains efficacious dosages. A lot of pre-workouts, especially in the bodybuilding world, are filled with junk to make the label look better.
I gave Sprint a “test run” and really liked the taste and the boost it gave me before my workout.
If you want to give it a try, use the code RC10 to save 10%. Here’s the link to the product.
In full disclosure, 6am Run is an official partner of RunnersConnect. In fact, their pre-workout is how I found out about them and why I wanted to partner in the first place (I liked their no hidden formula approach and focus on runners).
Regardless, I hope you enjoyed delving into the potential for pre-workout supplements and a look at some of the research behind effective ingredients.
Feel free to leave a comment or get in touch if there’s a supplement you wanted us to look at or are curious to know if it would be effective in a pre-workout.