By Scott Douglas
The basic means of improving fitness goes like this: provide stress to body; after workout, recover; during recovery, body adapts to better handle such stress in the future; repeat. Many runners add another step after the first one, namely, gobble anti-inflammatories to deal with aches and pains. A research review published in Sports Medicine suggests that doing so as a habit could undo some of what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place.
Brad Schoenfeld, of the Department of Health Sciences at the City University of New York, surveyed available research on what happens to various aspects of muscle activity when exercisers take what medical folks call nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.).
Schoenfeld found that occasional use of NSAIDs doesn’t seem to inhibit post-workout muscle gains. But Schoenfeld also found that research suggests that, at least in people who work out regularly, “longer-term NSAID use may well be detrimental, particularly in those who possess greater growth potential.” Schoenfeld speculates that this is because of how NSAIDs affect activity in what are known as satellite cells. They’re a form of stem cell that, as Schoenfeld writes, “[provide] agents needed for repair and subsequent growth of new muscle tissue.” By inhibiting the satellite cells’ activity, the thinking goes, NSAIDs change for the worse the normal stress/adapation process.
This research review supports the growing contention among coaches that, because of how NSAIDs reduce post-workout inflammation, they might detract from a workout’s effectiveness. Slight inflammation is part of what stimulates adaptation after a workout, proponents of this view contend. Especially when you have no big races coming up and aren’t acutely sore, it’s probably best not to consider popping pills a key part of your training. If, however you’re unusually sore after a workout, such as your quads feeling trashed after a hilly trail run when you’ve been doing nothing but flat running recently, then you’re probably okay taking NSAIDs for a day or two.