Coffee vs. Pre-workout: Which Drink Is Better for Your Workout?

By Kendra Whittle
Apr 14 2023

Coffee vs. Pre-workout: Which Drink Is Better for Your Workout?

Caffeine, am I right?! I need it, and I know I need it. Coffee is my one, true love. Sometimes the promise of my morning cup of coffee and a few precious minutes of silence following my CrossFit WOD is what keeps me going. That moment that steaming cup of greatness hits my bloodstream – ahh. Pure bliss.

Caffeine isn’t just the best part of my morning routine – it can be a secret weapon for athletes trying to get more of themselves in the gym. Caffeine is what’s known as an ergogenic aid, a substance used by athletes looking to enhance athletic performance.

You might hear ergogenic aid and immediately think ‘steroid’ – and you wouldn’t be wrong. Anabolic-androgenic steroids are also considered ergogenic aids. In fact, caffeine was a banned substance between 1984 and 2004 for Olympic athletes, until the World Anti-Doping Agency removed it from the list and freed athletes to utilize products with caffeine in training and ahead of competition.

Why It Works

Here’s why caffeine is so popular: it can produce a stimulating effect on the central nervous system – reducing unpleasant sensations like fatigue, perception of work effort and even pain. So, ideally, the benefit for the athlete would be that they could work longer and harder without feeling the need to stop or slow down. The same study found that caffeine enhanced fat utilization in the body and was shown to increase time to exhaustion during endurance activities, as well as sprint, power and strength performance.

Also, no surprise here, caffeine improves mental acuity, focus and technical skill during a strenuous activity, like exercise. As equally unsurprising – it works fast. Caffeine absorbs into your bloodstream, peaking blood levels after 30-120 minutes and remaining high for 3-4 hours.  

However, athletes are encouraged to use caffeine in moderation to improve performance. One review of studies found 1.4-2.7 mg of caffeine per pound of body weight was the sweet spot to reap the benefits. Too much and, well, we all know the side effects. Shakiness, insomnia and headaches are just a few of the well-known side effects of having too of a good thing. But in the right doses, it can work well, making it the most widely-used stimulant in the world.

So, we know it works. But in what form? Most of us think of caffeine in our favorite drinks, like coffee, tea and soft drinks (though the latter isn’t what we might call *healthy*). But in recent years, compounds known as “pre-workouts” have risen in popularity. Found in pill, powder and liquid forms, pre-workout formulas contain caffeine, but can also include amino acids, creatine, electrolytes and beta-alanine. Put together, a pre-workout is meant to enhance athletic performance, much like other dietary supplements, but it’s meant to be taken before working out.

So, which one is better for your workout? Or, more importantly, which one is better for your health?

Coffee – the OG

There’s no getting around it – coffee is just a cleaner product, especially if you drink it black. It’s a single, natural ingredient so you always know exactly what you’re getting (unlike pre-workout, which doesn’t have an FDA-approved set list of ingredients). A standard cup of coffee has about 98 mg grams of caffeine, keeping it well within the range of optimal caffeine dosage before working out. Coffee also has some fantastic antioxidants that provide protection against oxidative stress, which causes premature aging and various diseases. Score!

There are some drawbacks to coffee. For one, if you sweeten coffee with sugar or creamer, you add calories in a hurry. Then, of course, there’s the old rumor that coffee, well, makes you poop. And yes, that’s true, at least for some people (research shows up to 29% of coffee drinkers reported this occurrence). Coffee can work as a natural laxative by simulating muscle contractions in your stomach to get your bowels moving – sometimes in as little as four minutes! And yes, it happens in both regular and decaffeinated coffee. Those might not be the muscles you want working mid-WOD.

Pre-workout – The New Kid on the Block

The great thing about pre-workout is that it isn’t JUST caffeine. There’s creatine (which helps increase muscle mass), beta-alanine (which prevents workout fatigue) and branch chained amino acids (BCAAs) (which reduce muscle loss and provide faster muscle recovery). So it really packs a punch! Like caffeine, all of these ingredients fire quickly (usually within an hour) and benefits can last several hours after intake.

And that’s not all – they also include those wonderful electrolytes (think: sodium, magnesium, potassium), which can help support nerve conductions, and skeletal, muscle and heart contractions.  Pre-workouts can also do wonders for your hydration since they help increase the absorption of water and maintain fluid levels. Fewer water stops, anyone?

That being said, pre-workout has a LOT of caffeine. 150 mg to 300 mg per one scoop, to be exact. So, like three times the amount found in a cup of coffee. That means those nasty side caffeine side effects, like insomnia anxiety and jitters, can really rear their ugly heads. That’s why, if you drink pre-workout AND have a morning cup of coffee, you need to be very careful about the amount of caffeine you’re having throughout the day.

Pre workout isn’t regulated by the FDA, meaning there’s no set ingredient list or assurance of ingredient quality. That could be a minor concern, or a MAJOR problem if you’re a competition athlete. Here’s why: with unregulated substances, there’s always (ALWAYS) the possibility of an accidental exposure to a banned substance through contamination of supplements. One study even found rates of contamination between 12 and 58%. That might be enough to make you hit pause.

Also, those great amino acids mentioned above? They also come with some side effects. Beta-alanine can cause tingling sensations, and creatine might add to some digestive discomfort. Also concerning – citrulline, which increases blood flow to your muscles, can also cause headaches.

So…what’s better?

Depends on what you’re after. If you just want the stimulating effects of caffeine, coffee is the OG for a reason. You can control the amount of caffeine you’re getting (as long as you can control your impulses while grinding beans and lifting your coffee pot handle), and a standard cup provides a recommended range of caffeine to help boost your performance. If you’re someone who struggles with the “runs” thanks to coffee, wait an hour. The benefits of the caffeine will still be in your body, and the colon will have done its job.

If you need more for your strength gains and muscle mass, or are reaching for a more intense fitness goal, pre-workout might be a way to turn. Additionally, you might give pre-workout a look if you’re looking for better ways to stay hydrated (in addition to your trusty water bottle) and stay at peak performance for a few hours during an endurance workout.

You can have a cup of coffee to boost caffeine before working out if you need to. However, while coffee offers a lot of caffeine and antioxidants that can benefit your workouts, it lacks many of the elements found in pre-workout supplements. Therefore, it would be best if you chose what is best for you and your exercise routine.

So, in the end, it’s up to you – your workouts, your goals and your strategies on how to get there. 

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