Is It Really Bad to Take Pre-Workout Pain Relievers?

I grew up in a pro-ibuprofen family. To this day, my dad insists that “a little Advil won’t hurt anyone.” But that’s not entirely true, and it’s definitely not Lifehacker’s journalistic stance on pain relievers.

While articles with headlines such as ” Why You Should Never Take Pain Relief Before Workout ” seem to me to stir up fear, I have found that these headlines have penetrated my subconscious. When I train for a marathon, I’m often tempted to take some kind of NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen) to prevent the potential aches and pains that come with ultra-long runs. But before I reach for a bottle of Advil, these “never take painkillers!” headlines flash before my eyes.

Can or can’t you take pain relievers before exercise? And if it’s not okay, how bad is it really?

Estimated Risk of Taking Pain Medication Before Exercise

You’ve probably heard that taking too much ibuprofen can damage your kidneys. When it comes to the health of athletes, a 2017 article in The New York Times argued that regular intake of popular NSAIDs can “overload the kidneys during prolonged exercise and reduce the ability of muscles to recover” after exercise. The NYT’s conclusion is based on two different studies, one on ultramarathons and one on mice.

We previously explained that while pain relievers such as ibuprofen are popular with athletes, the perceived benefits may not be worth the potential cost. In fact, another 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that NSAIDs interfere with muscle regeneration and lead to muscle weakening – at least in the mice in which the study was conducted. The New York Times addresses this dubious fact, saying that “the results show that in humans, anti-inflammatory pain relievers may slightly impair the muscle’s ability to repair and strengthen after hard training.” By the time you have taken enough NSAIDs to relieve your pain, you will also have started taking enough to interfere with your recovery.

Why low risk and low reward

According to SELF’s breakdown of this New York Times article, there are several reasons why you might not need to worry too much about potential kidney and muscle damage. I recommend you read the full SELF analysis , but in short: the studies cited by the NYT likely don’t apply to you, the non-ultramarathon runner and non-mouse athlete, who is probably a very average (but nice person).

The official position of the American Sports Medicine Society is that NSAIDs and acetaminophen should not be used to prevent injury, but they can be used with caution before exercise to reduce minor sports-related soreness.

On the other hand, keep in mind that whatever benefits you’re looking for while taking pre-workout pain reliever could be a placebo anyway. David S. Niemann , Ph.D., director of the University of Appalachian Humanity Laboratory, tells SELF that ibuprofen use does not affect how athletes in his laboratory assess their perceived exertion, race time, muscle damage, and soreness. So while you are not putting your kidneys in immediate danger, you are not doing yourself much good either.

Pre-workout NSAID Bottom Line

There are risks to any medication; the more you take, the greater the risk. Before taking pre-workout NSAIDs, remember that science suggests that there are no significant physiological benefits, but there are potential long-term disadvantages (such as stomach ulcers and liver failure ) if you consistently take too much for too long.

If persistent pain is a problem during exercise, consider seeing a professional instead of self-medicating regularly. Pain relievers are a short-term remedy if you need them throughout the day, but don’t take more than you need to.

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