Pre-run ibuprofen won’t improve performance if you’re already sore

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Popping a handful of ibuprofen soon before a hard run if you're already sore is no more effective than popping a handful of jelly beans, suggests research published in the Journal of Athletic Training. The study adds to evidence that the approach many runners take to anti-inflammatories is unhelpful and potentially harmful.

Researchers gathered 20 members of the Brazilian military who were regular runners. Each runner was tested to determine what the researchers called "the second ventilatory threshold." This parameter corresponded to the pace the runners could hold for roughly 10 to 15 minutes, or somewhere between 3K and 5K race pace. While fresh, each runner then ran on a treadmill for as long as he could at that pace.

Two days after the first treadmill run to exhaustion, the runners did a series of leg exercises that induced muscle soreness. Two days after purposefully making themselves sore, the runners repeated the treadmill run to exhaustion. One hour before the run, half of the runners took 1.2 grams of ibuprofen (the maximum recommended daily dose for pain relief) and the other half took a placebo.

Before the study, the researchers thought that all the runners would do worse on the second treadmill run because of their muscle soreness. But they also thought that the runners who took ibuprofen soon before the second run wouldn't decline as much as the others; by blocking some of the pain from the muscle soreness, the ibuprofen would allow runners to last longer, the researchers hypothesised.

Instead, both groups had a dramatic reduction in performance. In fact, those who took ibuprofen saw their time to exhaustion decline by about 19 per cent, while those who took the placebo saw their time to exhaustion decline by just under 15 per cent. (The researchers considered the difference between the two groups statistically insignificant.)

"These observations indicate that long-distance runners should take caution when using [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen] to improve muscle-endurance performance because the side effects... may outweigh the expected benefits," the researchers wrote.

Common side effects of ibuprofen include gastrointestinal distress and headaches. More severe side effects can include ulcers and renal complications. Most experts agree that the best use of ibuprofen for runners is for short-term relief from acute, out-of-the-ordinary pain.