Best Pre-Workout For Cardio & How To Make Your Own! (2022)

July 4, 2022

It’s your cardio day. But you’re dreading this hardcore cardio session on your program. You think, "I need an extra boost to get through this." Pre-workouts aren’t reserved for the bodybuilder at the gym. You can also use pre-workouts for cardio… If you know what you're looking for!

Instead of providing a list of poorly dosed, barely useful pre-workout formulations, I’ve got the raw ingredients so you can dose them properly and make your own cardio pre-workout. So, here are the best pre-workout ingredients for cardio in no particular order.

Best Pre-Workout For Cardio

While you can buy a pre-made pre-workout formula, I prefer to get separate ingredients for enhancing cardio. Why? Because some of the doses needed to elicit a performance-enhancing effect are far too great to fit into a pre-workout formula.

That doesn't mean pre-workouts are useless; you may need to have some ingredients separately to get the most out of your cardio. Here are the most efficacious ingredients below!

L-Citrulline Malate

L-Citrulline typically comes in two forms. L-citrulline or citrulline malate. Either supplement will help improve your cardio. The difference is that L-citrulline is a standalone ingredient, whereas citrulline malate is a combination. If getting citrulline malate, you want a 2:1 ratio.

Interestingly, L-citrulline and malate work synergistically to potentially increase ATP production (the energy the muscles use to contract) and reduce lactate build-up, prolonging fatigue [1].

For example, taking 8 g 60 minutes before exercise reduces muscle soreness 24 to 48 hours after, increases reps to failure for both lower and upper body lifts and improves maximal grip strength [1].

When 6 g is supplemented with cyclists for seven days, increases in time to exhaustion during moderate-intensity cycling are seen [2]. While L-citrulline or citrulline malate is typically used as an acute ergogenic benefit, doses as low as 2.4 g over seven days improve 4 km cycling power output and time to completion.

You may also experience less muscle fatigue after cardio than those who don't take L-citrulline [3]. But how does it work? L-citrulline is a nitric oxide booster.

If you're not familiar with nitric oxide (sorry, Fast and the Furious movies don't count), it is a vasodilator increasing the space in the blood vessels so you can transport more blood to the working muscles.

Therefore, more oxygen is delivered, and more energy can be produced aerobically, prolonging fatigue. Old pre-workout supplements like NO Explode were one of the first products championing this type of pre-workout.

However, there was one huge flaw with their formula. They used L-arginine. L-arginine is an amino acid-like L-citrulline, and both are converted into nitric oxide, providing the cardio benefits mentioned. But, L-arginine doesn’t raise nitric oxide levels because it is poorly absorbed in the gut.

Nitric Oxide

L-citrulline is a workaround where it is converted to L-arginine in the kidneys. Therefore, elevating L-arginine concentrations can be converted into nitric oxide, dilating blood vessels.

How Much L-Citrulline Should You Take?

Based on the current research, 6-8 g approximately 60 minutes before cardio exercise will provide acute cardio enhancements. However, taking L-citrulline daily seems you can take lower doses to see similar benefits. I recommend sticking to the 6-8 g daily to ensure you’re maximizing the benefits from L-citrulline.

Best L-Citrulline Supplement For Cardio

Because doses are relatively large, opt for the pure powder you can get in bulk. I often recommend Bulk Supplements because of this. The link below is citrulline malate 2:1, which the research above used and allows you to purchase up to a 55 lb bag with many other options.

Bulk Supplements L-Citrulline Malate 2:1

Beta-Alanine

While beta-alanine is present in most pre-workout formulas, it's better taken chronically than once-off before a few workouts per week. For example, a meta-analysis shows a 2.85% endurance performance improvement when 179 g of beta-alanine is taken [4].

This is not 179 g in one dose! It is spread over 3 – 10 weeks. This 2.85% cardio improvement extends to exercise lasting 1-10 minutes but is most effective with high-intensity cardio in the 1–4-minute range [5].

This means you can maintain a higher intensity during cardio lasting 1-4 minutes. How does beta-alanine do this? Raising carnosine levels within the muscle improves the ability to remove acidic waste products from metabolism, such as hydrogen ions.

As exercise intensity increases, the aerobic energy system cannot keep up with using lactate as fuel, reducing the build-up of hydrogen ions. This is when fatigue starts to set in as an acidic muscle environment reduces the contractile ability of the muscle.

Therefore, more carnosine buffers these hydrogen ions allowing you to exercise at a higher intensity for longer.

How Much Beta-Alanine To Take For Cardio

The dose used within the literature ranges from 2.4 – 6.4 g per day of beta-alanine. But it's not the single-dose size that makes a difference in your cardio. It’s the total dose after a longer time period [4].

Further, there is currently no known threshold for carnosine content within the muscle. Therefore, the longer you take it, the potentially more beneficial it becomes to improving high-intensity cardio.

Be aware, however, beta-alanine has a side effect called paresthesia which is the tingling and itching feeling on your skin. It is a harmless side effect with doses greater than 800 mg as beta-alanine stimulates carnosine to be made [6]. Taking the recommended 2.4 – 6.4 g in one dose can make this feeling too intense to handle.

There are two options to reduce this side effect:

  • Split your total dose into equal parts throughout the day. For example, 800 mg at breakfast, lunch, and dinner will get you to 2.4 g.
  • Eating a high carbohydrate meal 60 mins before taking beta-alanine, which you should be doing as part of your cardio routine [7].

Best Beta-Alanine For Cardio

I will refer you to Bulk Supplements again as you can buy up to a 55 lb bag so you can dose it correctly without worrying about stocking up every two weeks.

Bulk Supplements Beta-Alanine

Sodium Bicarbonate

Sodium bicarbonate is best consumed with beta-alanine for a superhero and sidekick combination. Both would be superheroes in this scenario, so instead of Batman and Robin, it'd be Thor and Iron Man. Supplement companies don't push it because it's such a cheap and easily accessible ingredient.

Even on its own, increases in time to exhaustion by 9% in karateka, doubling time to exhaustion in boxers, and enhancing peak and average power in Taekwondo athletes are a few of the applications within combat sport [8,9,10].

But when taken with beta-alanine, we see further endurance benefits [5]. For example, well-trained rowers performed slightly better when supplementing with sodium bicarbonate acutely before the test while supplementing with beta-alanine chronically [11].

This is the beauty of sodium bicarbonate. You don’t need to take it every day! Just before your cardio session to give yourself a boost in performance. But how does it work? Sodium bicarbonate is an alkaline substance helping to buffer acidic hydrogen ions like beta-alanine. Therefore, you can go longer before fatiguing.

How Much Sodium Bicarbonate To Take?

The recommended dose is 0.2 – 0.4 g per kilogram of bodyweight 60 – 120 mins before cardio. However, be aware that high doses can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, so if it upsets your stomach, you can load sodium bicarbonate throughout the day, similar to beta-alanine [12].

For example, breaking down your dose over 3 or 4 equal amounts before your cardio workout.

Best Sodium Bicarbonate For Cardio

Sodium bicarbonate is simply baking soda that you’ll find in your cupboard or cleaning products. However, the packs you buy at the supermarket are far too small, and you may need a box or more to get your dose before cardio training.

Therefore, it is better to buy in bulk like the product below. Since the plain powder tastes horrible, at least the tablets can be easier to ingest.

Rugby Sodium Bicarbonate Tablets

Pomegranate Juice

Pomegranate juice is not usually associated with increased cardio. However, endurance athletes consuming 6.7 oz (200 ml) of pomegranate juice for 21 days reduced oxidative stress markers compared to a placebo group which is thought to potentially contribute to muscular fatigue [13,14].

Taking 1000 mg of pomegranate extract 30 minutes before exercise acts as a nitric oxide booster, dilates blood vessels, increases blood flow, and increases time to exhaustion when running [15].

How Much Pomegranate Juice To Take?

The critical ingredient to look at on the ingredients label is polyphenols. You want to aim for approximately 650 mg per day. Unfortunately, not all brands have the polyphenols listed, so it may take some searching to find the right brand. Take it 30 minutes before cardio, and you're good to go!

Best Pomegranate Juice For Cardio

Based on the research, it seems two servings of the Lakewood Organic Pure Pomegranate Juice mixed with water in the morning and evening would give you the approximate dose used in these studies.

Lakewood Organics Pure Pomegranate Juice

Beetroot Powder

Another naturally occurring nitric oxide supplement comes from beetroots. But trying to get enough nitrates from beetroots themselves is near impossible. So, drinking the juice or using powder can get you enough for cardio performance enhancements.

For example, drinking 500 ml of 99% beetroot juice enhanced recovery improving jump performance while reducing muscle pain during repeated sprint testing [16].

How Much Beetroot Powder To Take?

Typically, beetroot extract contains a 3% nitrate concentration. Based on the above research, you need greater than 143 mg of nitrates 30 minutes before cardio. This means you'd need to take approximately 5 g or more of the beetroot extract below. To be safe, you could take up to 8 g per serving.

Best Beetroot Powder For Cardio

Bulk Supplements does a beetroot powder you can buy in large bags, so you don't need to stock up every week or go through jars of expensive juice at the supermarket.

Bulk Supplements Beetroot Powder

Caffeine

Caffeine is the most widely used performance enhancer outside of physical performance. I’m sure you’ve seen the morning lines outside Starbucks. Everyone waiting to get their morning caffeine fix. When taking caffeine, we see a 2.22% improvement in endurance performance and a 2.9% improvement in power output [17].

How Much Caffeine To Take?

The recommended dose ranges between 3 – 6 mg per kilogram of bodyweight. It doesn't seem to matter where you choose to dose your caffeine in this range, as similar benefits are seen [18]. Further, your habitual caffeine intake does not impact caffeine's performance-enhancing effect, so you don't need to cycle it or desensitize yourself [19].

Best Caffeine For Cardio

I don't recommend coffee as you don't know how much caffeine is in each brew you drink. Energy drinks are a good option, but the most cost-effective option is using caffeine pills. The capsules from Bulk Supplements will do the trick.

Bulk Supplements Caffeine Capsules

Best Pre-Workout Formulation For Cardio

Crazy Nutrition Intensive Pre-Train

Pre Workout For Cardio

I know I’ve listed the best raw pre-workout ingredients to enhance your cardio and not given any formulations. However, I know it’s not always feasible to buy all the individual ingredients and worry about measuring into your shaker like a chemist in the lab.

So, I recommend Crazy Nutrition Intensive Pre-Train as the best pre-workout for cardio if you don’t want to make your own. Why? It's one of the only pre-workouts with an adequate L-citrulline dose for increasing cardio performance and isn't overloaded with caffeine.

It has a whopping 7 g per serving which is smack in the middle of the 6-8 g recommendation I made above. Beta-alanine is also dosed within the recommended daily range at 2.5 g. Containing 200 mg of caffeine is the same as most caffeine pills.

It also tastes great, making it something you don't have to chug down. You can read my full Crazy Nutrition Intensive Pre-Train review here.

Pros

  • Cardio ingredients dosed properly so you can reap the benefits.
  • A 60-day money-back guarantee, so you're essentially trying it for free.
  • Easy on the stomach.
  • Tastes great.

Cons

  • Only 20 servings per container so if you train more than 5x per week, you'll need an extra tub each month.

Crazy Nutrition Intensive Pre-Train Pre-Workout For Cardio

What To Look For In A Pre-Workout For Cardio

If you're looking for a pre-formulated pre-workout, there are two things to look out for.

Cardio Enhancing Ingredients

Most pre-workouts are designed for gym-goers to increase their strength and improve the pump feeling when lifting weights. Many of the same ingredients also improve cardio endurance, so typical gym pre-workouts can work as pre-workouts for cardio, such as the example above.

However, many pre-workouts may only have one or two cardio ingredients because there is no way to fit multiple grams of beetroot or sodium bicarbonate into a formulation, so you will always be lacking in that department.

Most importantly, I recommend looking for L-citrulline or citrulline malate in high doses as the evidence surrounding this supplement is strong.

Dosed Adequately

The other problem with formulated pre-workouts is they either:

  • Hide doses behind proprietary blends
  • Underdose ingredients

Both are shortcuts to improve margins and profits for the supplement company. Typically, proprietary blends hide underdosed ingredients 99 times out of 100. Avoid these at all costs. Check the ingredients label and ensure you get the recommended doses in this article.

Frequently Asked Pre-Workout For Cardio Questions

Can You Use Pre-Workout For Cardio?

You can use pre-workout for cardio, and many ingredients can enhance endurance performance. These include L-citrulline, beta-alanine, beetroot powder, pomegranate juice, and caffeine.

Is It OK To Take Pre-Workout For Running?

It is okay to take pre-workout for running. Many of the ingredients will enhance running performance. However, be aware that high doses of caffeine aren’t for everyone. Some individuals will decrease performance when taking caffeine as they have a gene causing them to be slow metabolizers [20]. You’ll know this is you if you feel tired and drowsy after ingesting caffeine.

Summary

References

1. Gonzalez, A. M., & Trexler, E. T. (2020). Effects of citrulline supplementation on exercise performance in humans: A review of the current literature. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1480-1495.

2. Bailey, S. J., Blackwell, J. R., Lord, T., Vanhatalo, A., Winyard, P. G., & Jones, A. M. (2015). l-Citrulline supplementation improves O2 uptake kinetics and high-intensity exercise performance in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology.

3. Suzuki, T., Morita, M., Kobayashi, Y., & Kamimura, A. (2016). Oral L-citrulline supplementation enhances cycling time trial performance in healthy trained men: Double-blind randomized placebo-controlled 2-way crossover study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13(1), 1-8.

4. Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25-37.

5. Saunders, B., Elliott-Sale, K., Artioli, G. G., Swinton, P. A., Dolan, E., Roschel, H., ... & Gualano, B. (2017). β-alanine supplementation to improve exercise capacity and performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51(8), 658-669.

6. Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Hoffman, J. R., Wilborn, C. D., Sale, C., … & Antonio, J. (2015). International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 1-14.

7. Huerta Ojeda, Á., Tapia Cerda, C., Poblete Salvatierra, M. F., Barahona-Fuentes, G., & Jorquera Aguilera, C. (2020). Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on physical performance in aerobic–anaerobic transition zones: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients, 12(9), 2490.

8. Siegler, J. C., & Hirscher, K. (2010). Sodium bicarbonate ingestion and boxing performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(1), 103-108.

9. Rezaei, S., Akbari, K., Gahreman, D. E., Sarshin, A., Tabben, M., Kaviani, M., … & Naderi, A. (2019). Caffeine and sodium bicarbonate supplementation alone or together improve karate performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 1-8.

10. Koozehchian, M. S., Sarshin, A., Fallahi, V., Rahimi, A., Kaviani, M., Forbes, S., … & Naderi, A. (2020). Effects of Creatine and Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Elite Taekwondo Players. The FASEB Journal, 34(S1), 1-1.

11. Hobson, R. M., Harris, R. C., Martin, D., Smith, P., Macklin, B., Gualano, B., & Sale, C. (2013). Effect of beta-alanine with and without sodium bicarbonate on 2,000-m rowing performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 23(5).

12. Rezaei, S., Akbari, K., Gahreman, D. E., Sarshin, A., Tabben, M., Kaviani, M., … & Naderi, A. (2019). Caffeine and sodium bicarbonate supplementation alone or together improve karate performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 1-8.

13. Fuster-Muñoz, E., Roche, E., Funes, L., Martínez-Peinado, P., Sempere, J. M., & Vicente-Salar, N. (2016). Effects of pomegranate juice in circulating parameters, cytokines, and oxidative stress markers in endurance-based athletes: A randomized controlled trial. Nutrition, 32(5), 539-545.

14. Finaud, J., Lac, G., & Filaire, E. (2006). Oxidative stress. Sports medicine, 36(4), 327-358.

15. Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Melvin, M. N., Roelofs, E. J., & Wingfield, H. L. (2014). Effects of pomegranate extract on blood flow and running time to exhaustion. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, 39(9), 1038-1042.

16. Clifford, T., Berntzen, B., Davison, G. W., West, D. J., Howatson, G., & Stevenson, E. J. (2016). Effects of beetroot juice on recovery of muscle function and performance between bouts of repeated sprint exercise. Nutrients, 8(8), 506.

17. Southward, K., Rutherfurd-Markwick, K. J., & Ali, A. (2018). The effect of acute caffeine ingestion on endurance performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 48(8), 1913-1928.

18. Southward, K., Rutherfurd-Markwick, K. J., & Ali, A. (2018). The effect of acute caffeine ingestion on endurance performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 48(8), 1913-1928.

19. Carvalho, A., Marticorena, F. M., Grecco, B. H., Barreto, G., & Saunders, B. (2022). Can I Have My Coffee and Drink It? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis to Determine Whether Habitual Caffeine Consumption Affects the Ergogenic Effect of Caffeine. Sports Medicine, 1-12.

20. Guest, N., Corey, P., Vescovi, J., & El-Sohemy, A. (2018). Caffeine, CYP1A2 genotype, and endurance performance in athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(8), 1570-1578.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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