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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
March 11, 2022
If you workout – there’s a good chance you take, or have taken, a pre-workout supplement. Call me presumptuous, but many people consider pre-workout supplements a necessary part of their workout routine. In fact, nearly a quarter of gym-goers consistently use some form of pre-workout1-2.
Pre-workouts are popular for good reason – they work. Pre-workouts provide a boost of energy to kick up your workouts a notch or two (or four depending on how much you take). Pre-workout use seems to be largely relegated to the heavy lifters – those who are trying to get big or move heavy weight. However, you may be surprised to find pre-workout use is popular for cardio days. Actually, a good number of runners and aerobic enthusiasts prefer pre-workout supplements over coffee before carving up the streets or the treadmill3-5.
Clearly pre-workouts are popular for all sorts of exercises. But should you actually take a pre-workout supplement for cardio, and is it effective? In this article, we’ll discuss what makes a pre-workout, and if you should consider using one for cardio.
A pre-workout supplement is exactly what it sounds like – a supplement designed to be take PRIOR to working out (bodybuilding, running, HIIT). They typically contain ingredients – caffeine or arginine – that increase energy and focus, improve power and strength, and help reduce fatigue. Almost all contain caffeine as the primary ingredient, and amounts vary anywhere from 100mg up to 500mg in some products!
There are several other ingredients you can find in pre-workout, most of them are analogues to caffeine, that is they give you a boost of energy and mental focus. Others include arginine, creatine and beta alanine, which are geared toward resistance training as they help to reduce fatigue and increase power.
Not all pre-workouts are made the same, and most have proprietary pre-workout blends, so you can’t always be sure of ingredients or doses. This is important because different ingredients will have different effects, especially depending on the workout you are doing.
Pre-workout supplements may be a great way to improve your cardiovascular endurance. which is less about power and strength, and more about sustained activity. There are components of strength inherent to cardio, which is just another reason you may want to consider taking a preworkout on cardio days. Pre-workouts support energy systems that sustain endurance as well as strength.
That said, let’s take a moment to reflect on the most common ingredients in pre-workouts and how they may impact cardio.
Now that we’re familiar with how pre-workout ingredients can impact cardio, let’s explore some of the more common kinds of cardio:
1. High Intensity Interval Training:
This type of exercise involves short intervals of high intensity work – think one minute of burpees or bench presses until failure – follow by a short rest, then another round of intense work, and so on…
The point of HIIT is to improve overall conditioning by combining resistance and power training with aerobics. You will increase your heart rate for sure, but only for a short period.
Pre-workout supplements can definitely support HIIT workouts. A pre-workout will give you the energy you need to prolong your workout, usually caffeine; the other ingredients will help to increase power, and muscle growth.
Sprinting can be a form of cardio, or a supplement to it. In general, sprinting is typically anaerobic, as each sprint usually lasts less than a minute. However, performing repeated intervals of sprints, or running at threshold, will improve your cardiovascular endurance.
Again, caffeine will support energy and endurance during sprinting. Creatine and beta alanine will come in handy as they’ll be good for regenerating energy lost during anaerobic parts of sprinting.
3. Steady-State Cardio:
Or simply running, this seems to be the line between lifters and runners, the skinny and the strong. Truth be told, running requires as much, if not more, energy and focus than mere bodybuilding. But whatever your alliance, running is certainly a great activity to add to your routine.
Steady-state cardio derives energy primarily from glucose and fat, and the working muscles don’t generate the force required to move a heavy weight. That said, most of the ingredients in a given pre-workout will enhance endurance and reduce fatigue on long distance runs, whether slow or at threshold pace.
Related: What's Better For Fat Loss, HIIT or Steady-State Cardio?
As mentioned, most pre-workouts are designed for resistance training, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to boost your cardio. The ingredients in pre-workouts help to generate and sustain energy and improve power and recovery. Below is a list of key pre-workout ingredients with a description of their effects and benefits to cardio.
Note: Both creatine and beta alanine require a loading phase and daily dosing to be effective. As such, if you are not doing that, they will not prove to be of any real use during running. Best practice is to supplement creatine and beta alanine separately to ensure you are loading correctly and then getting the proper dosage daily moving forward. Besides these two "saturation" ingredients, other acute pre-workout ingredients will help benefit your runs.
Fully-dosed pre-workout without the B.S. Over 25 grams of purposeful active ingredients to take your workouts to new heights.
Timing of any nutrient is important; fortunately with pre-workouts, the name says it all – take before a workout. That said, all pre-workouts will have their own timing suggestions, which vary from 30 minutes to 60 minutes before working out. When doing cardio, we’d aim for 45-60 minutes prior, just to avoid any stomach issues or to allow feelings of fullness to subside. If you prefer fasted training, taking pre-workout on an empty stomach enables you to take it closer to your workout session. In this case, you can probably take it 15 minutes before a workout and still feel its effects.
Pre-workouts are thought to be safe in most doses, however they are not studied regularly, nor are they regulated by the FDA as supplements. That said, most ingredients within pre-workouts are well-studied, so their side effect are known. Here are some of the common side effects reported with pre-workout use:
In this article, we discussed using pre-workouts for cardio. As we’ve seen, pre-workouts are used to boost energy, focus, and power, typically for resistance training. But these same ingredients can be used to effectively enhance endurance and improve recovery during and after cardio.
No matter your flavor of cardio – HIIT, sprinting, or good old long distance running – you may want to consider using a preworkout to give your routine a bump.
Remember, when considering dietary supplements, take the time to read the labels and understand the ingredients. Stimulants can increase heart rate, and this may be uncomfortable and, at very high doses, dangerous.
Overall, experimentation with supplements and exercises is always a great way to improve performance, break a plateau, or just familiarize with a new product.
Good luck, and don’t forget to tack on a few reps, or in this case, miles.
Looking for a great pre-workout to boost your cardio performance? Check out the Best Pre-Workout Supplements on the market (we share the best pre-workout for cardio in there too)!
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