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Painkillers and running: do they mix?

Pain killers and running: do they mix?“No pain, no gain.”

That’s how the saying goes. In part it’s true. If you want to become a better runner you have to push past your comfort zone – which hurts! (Of course, it’s not a good idea to run through all types of pain. Read more here.)

Running through discomfort is easier said than done. At mile 20 of a marathon, for instance, or when you’re staring down mile repeats on legs that are already fatigued from workouts earlier in the week. During these times, many athletes would do anything to make the pain go away so they can finish up their run – including taking over-the-counter painkillers.

The most common type of drugs athletes use to relieve pain are acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS. NSAIDS include ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin.

These pain medications were made to help ease minor aches and pains, so it makes sense that a lot of athletes turn to them. Surveys show up to 70 percent of runners and other endurance athletes pop pain pills before every workout or race, in an effort to ward off pain and soreness.

A lot of people view painkillers as risk-free medications. However, just because they’re available over the counter, it doesn’t make them safe. And research and experts both say to exercise caution when mixing painkillers and running.

Painkillers can cause stomach issues
A study published in the December 2012 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that study participants who took ibuprofen before a workout suffered from intestinal damage.

Experts say this isn’t surprising. NSAIDs work by stopping the body from producing prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are a substance that the body makes to induce pain and protect stomach lining, among other functions. When you take NSAIDs, you also block prostaglandins from protecting your stomach lining. These medications come with side effects like nausea, stomach pain, intestinal bleeding, and stomach ulcers. The more often you use NSAIDs, the greater the risk for these problems.

What’s more, distance running also causes stomach issues. So, the combination of both may cause even more intestinal problems.

Pain medication can increase your risk of injury
A painkiller blocks pain, which means you’ll be able to push harder when working out. But sometimes it’s in our best interest to feel pain. Pain is our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. Sometimes the pain is just typical muscle fatigue that comes with running, but other times it can be a warning sign of an injury. If you push through that type of pain, you could worsen the injury and lengthen the recovery process.

Pain meds can hurt your performance
One of the benefits of training is that your body learns how to push through the normal discomforts associated with running, and perform strong when muscles are sore and fatigued. If you take pain killers, your body may not make those adaptations and your performance may suffer.

The take home message
Taking pain pills doesn’t come without risks, and painkillers may do more harm than good. Of course, taking an over-the-counter pain medication once in a blue moon, when you truly need it is unlikely to cause any lasting harm. But think twice the next time you want to take a painkiller before or during exercise.

Note that it’s important to take all supplements, vitamins, over-the-counter drugs, and prescription medications exactly as directed. Taking more than the recommended dose of painkillers is associated with dangerous risks, such as kidney failure. If you have any questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Written by Jen Matz / Photo by Creative Commons