Coffee Vs Pre Workout: What’s The Best Before Exercise?

Almost everyone who has enjoyed a cup of coffee before a workout has experienced the performance boost that can come from having caffeine before a workout. 

Caffeine is a known ergogenic aid, so athletes spanning the gamut from everyday recreational athletes to elites and professionals frequently turn to some source of caffeine prior to exercise.

But what is the best way to get this caffeine, and should it be accompanied by other ingredients to enhance its delivery and effectiveness?

When it comes to performance and health, which is better: coffee vs pre workout supplements before exercise?

Furthermore, what’s the difference between coffee and pre workout drinks?

In this article, we will discuss coffee vs pre workout supplements before exercise, examining the pros and cons of each to answer the question, “Is it better to have coffee or a pre workout before exercising?”

We will discuss: 

  • Coffee vs Pre Workout Comparison
  • Coffee vs Pre Workout: Which Is Better?

Let’s get started!

Coffee and coffee beans.

Coffee vs Pre Workout Comparison

So, what is the difference between coffee and pre workout?

Before we can fairly compare coffee and pre workout supplements, we should establish what’s in each of these drinks and how they can help boost athletic performance.

Coffee vs Pre Workout Caffeine 

Both coffee and pre workouts are drinks that contain caffeine, and this is the primary compound/ingredient that both drinks have in common.

Caffeine is a stimulant, so it can increase alertness and energy. 

Caffeine is often used as an ergogenic aid because it can increase your stamina or time to exhaustion during endurance exercise. 

For example, one study found that ingesting 2.5 mg/kg of caffeine increased time to exhaustion during high-intensity exercise (11.2 minutes with caffeine versus 7.9 minutes without). 

A person drinking a pre workout.

Caffeine may also increase fat oxidation, which can serve as a glycogen-sparing effect to prevent “hitting the wall” in an endurance workout.

Coffee and pre workouts can contain fairly different amounts of caffeine. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are about 96 milligrams of caffeine in a standard 8-ounce cup of black coffee, though this amount can vary based on the type of beans, how long they were roasted, and how long the coffee was brewed.

The amount of caffeine in a pre workout depends on the particular formulation used in the product but is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-300 milligrams per serving.

Therefore, a pre workout contains the equivalent of about one to three cups of coffee in terms of caffeine.

How much caffeine do you need for performance enhancement? 

Most studies show that endurance performance is optimized when the caffeine dosage is about 3-6 mg/kg of body weight, although there’s some evidence to suggest that even smaller doses of 2 to 3 mg/kg, or about 200 mg total of caffeine, can improve exercise performance.

Coffee beans.

Coffee vs Pre Workout Ingredients

In terms of compounds that confer exercise performance benefits in coffee, things pretty much begin and end with caffeine.

However, pre workouts usually contain a handful of other ingredients that may be considered ergogenic aids or athletic performance enhancers.

A pre workout is a type of sports supplement designed to be taken before you run or work out to increase your energy and focus, prevent glycogen depletion, and boost athletic performance. 

They may also enhance circulation, stamina, muscle repair, and mental alertness.

Although the ingredients in a pre workout may vary somewhat from product to product, pre workout powders and drinks usually contain caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, B vitamins, electrolytes, and/or branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), among other less common ingredients like ginseng, various adaptogens, and Co-Enzyme Q10.

Each of the other ingredients in a pre workout is included to provide specific benefits.

A scoop of powder and a blender.

B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 and niacin, play a key role in energy production and metabolism. 

Green tea extract is not only a source of caffeine but has been found to enhance fat oxidation at higher intensities of exercise, potentially delaying glycogen depletion during long workouts.

Creatine is used as a substrate for the rapid energy-generating pathway used by your muscles during powerful, forceful contractions. 

Therefore, providing your muscles with an ample supply of creatine helps ensure that ATP (cellular energy) can be quickly synthesized on-site without having to wait through the lag time for slower energy systems.

Pre workouts usually contain electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium because these ions support nerve conductions and skeletal muscle and heart contractions. 

They also help maintain fluid levels in the body and can increase the absorption of water to enhance the effectiveness of hydration.

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three essential amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—with a unique chemical structure that enables them to bypass digestion in the liver and go straight to the muscles, where they can be immediately used for energy. 

BCAAs may reduce fatigue during exercise. 

A person drinking a pre workout.

For example, studies show that BCAAs can reduce the level of perceived exertion, preserve glycogen stores during endurance exercise, and decrease lactate production, increasing the time to exhaustion. 

Lastly, BCAAs have also been shown to support muscle protein synthesis, helping you repair and build muscle after a hard workout.

Pre workouts often contain beta-alanine, which is another amino acid.

It increases the levels of carnosine in your muscles.

Carnosine helps buffer the pH in your muscles, so it plays an instrumental role in minimizing metabolic acidosis (burning, exhausted legs) during a hard workout.

Some pre workouts contain carnosine itself, while others contain beta-alanine to stimulate the production of carnosine.

L-citrulline and L-arginine are two other amino acids often included in the formulation of a pre workout because, in a chain of events, they increase the production of nitric oxide (either directly, as in the case of L-arginine, by way of increasing the production of L-arginine, in the case of L-citrulline).

The end result is the production of nitric oxide, a compound that dilates blood vessels, which increases blood flow to your muscles, enhancing oxygenation and nutrient delivery while you exercise.

For this reason, beetroot powder is another common ingredient in pre workouts for endurance athletes, as it also increases the production of nitric oxide, which increases blood circulation.

The final amino acid frequently found in pre workouts is L-glutamine, which has been shown to help reduce muscle soreness and increase the rate of recovery by repairing microtears in the muscles when taken before exercise.

Coffee, coffee beans, and milk.

Coffee vs Pre-Workout: Which Is Better?

So, is it better to have pre workout vs coffee before exercise?

It’s not all that objective to determine which is better before working out; it largely depends on your goals.

The primary reason to drink coffee or take a pre workout supplement before exercise is to get a performance boost, mainly from the stimulant effects of caffeine.

With that said, pre workouts contain a cocktail of other ingredients, which has its pros and cons.

If it is the endurance benefits of caffeine you are after, coffee tends to be a better choice.

Coffee is a much cleaner product. Particularly if you drink black coffee, you are getting just a single natural ingredient, so you know exactly what you are putting in your body.

Moreover, you can control the amount of caffeine based on how long you brew the beans.

As much as you get what you want in coffee, you also don’t get what you don’t want.

A person drinking a pre workout.

Pre workouts often contain a dozen or more ingredients, and the products are often not very transparent in their labeling. 

There can be lots of fillers, chemicals, food dyes, and artificial sweeteners.

It is also unclear how much of each active and inactive ingredient is in each serving.

However, if you are looking for some additional performance benefits, pre workouts have a lot more to offer than coffee, particularly when it comes to amino acids.

Pre workouts will do much more in terms of increasing circulation and energy production than a regular cup of coffee.

Finally, when it comes to the cost of coffee vs pre workouts, coffee is significantly cheaper when you make it at home.

Coffee and coffee beans.

You can buy whole beans or ground coffee and make a cup of coffee for approximately $.10, whereas one serving of a pre-workout will cost about $1.00-$2.00.

Therefore, coffee is about 10 times cheaper than a pre-workout for the equivalent amount of caffeine.

Of course, a case can be made that either product could win in the pre workout vs coffee showdown, but for most everyday athletes looking for a boost of energy, particularly for endurance exercise, coffee is the better choice.

It’s cheaper, easier to control the amount of caffeine, and healthier for your body.

However, the concentration of caffeine in coffee is typically much less than in a pre workout, so you’ll have to drink more to get the same dosage.

If you are keen on the performance benefits of a pre workout but want the cleanness of coffee, you can straddle both worlds by supplementing coffee with BCAAs or an amino acid supplement.

This will still be cheaper than a pre workout supplement per serving, and high-quality amino acid supplements will be a pure product with clear labeling and no fillers.

What else do you count on for your pre-workout routine? A pre-workout snack or breakfast? Take a look at some of our best pre-run snacks.

A person drinking a cup of coffee.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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