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I often hear people say they’ll just take a Motrin before the race. Let’s wait one minute and review the research…

This great New York Times article summarizes some remarkable research.

Those runners who’d popped over-the-counter ibuprofen pills before and during the race displayed significantly more inflammation and other markers of high immune system response afterward than the runners who hadn’t taken anti-inflammatories. The ibuprofen users also showed signs of mild kidney impairment and, both before and after the race, of low-level endotoxemia, a condition in which bacteria leak from the colon into the bloodstream.

The researchers were disturbed when they also found out that the majority of racers (70%) utilized ibuprofen in this way.

One of the most common reasons cited by the triathletes in Brazil was “pain prevention.” Similarly, when the Western States runners were polled, most told the researchers that “they thought ibuprofen would get them through the pain and discomfort of the race,” Nieman says, “and would prevent soreness afterward.” But the latest research into the physiological effects of ibuprofen and other NSAIDs suggests that the drugs in fact, have the opposite effect. In a number of studies conducted both in the field and in human performance laboratories in recent years, NSAIDs did not lessen people’s perception of pain during activity or decrease muscle soreness later. “We had researchers at water stops” during the Western States event, Nieman says, asking the racers how the hours of exertion felt to them. “There was no difference between the runners using ibuprofen and those who weren’t. So the painkillers were not useful for reducing pain” during the long race, he says, and afterward, the runners using ibuprofen reported having legs that were just as sore as those who hadn’t used the drugs.

Moreover, Warden and other researchers have found that, in laboratory experiments on animal tissues, NSAIDs actually slowed the healing of injured muscles, tendons, ligament, and bones. “NSAIDs work by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins,”substances that are involved in pain and also in the creation of collagen, Warden says. Collagen is the building block of most tissues. So fewer prostaglandins mean less collagen, “which inhibits the healing of tissue and bone injuries,” Warden says, including the micro-tears and other trauma to muscles and tissues that can occur after any strenuous workout or race.

The painkillers also blunt the body’s response to exercise at a deeper level. Normally, the stresses of exercise activate a particular molecular pathway that increases collagen, and leads, eventually, to creating denser bones and stronger tissues. If “you’re taking ibuprofen before every workout, you lessen this training response,” Warden says. Your bones don’t thicken and your tissues don’t strengthen as they should. They may be less able to withstand the next workout. In essence, the pills athletes take to reduce the chances that they’ll feel sore may increase the odds that they’ll wind up injured — and sore.

My input: Your body is smart. The drug shifts the body’s normal responses and therefore leads to slower healing, increased likelihood of injury, and no reduction in pain. Follow a stricter training program so you gradually work up to your goal, and if there is pain after a race see a chiropractor to make sure your body is performing at its best, and a massage therapist to soothe the muscles.