Rather than help your performance, popping anti-inflammatories and painkillers before a race could significantly increase your chance of gastric and heart problems, according to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open.
Researchers surveyed 3,913 runners at the Bonn Marathon in Germany to find out how many used over-the-counter analgesics before the competition. Of the runners surveyed, 49 percent said they took drugs to limit or avoid pain during the race and after. Most of the pills (54 percent) were taken without prescription. Of the over-the-counter medications, most runners (47 percent) used the non-steroidal anti-inflammtory (NSAID) diclofenac. The second most common analgesic was ibuprofen, while aspirin, acetaminophen, and others were used less frequently.
Based on the numbers, researchers then compared the drop-out rates and “adverse events” between runners who took analgesics and those who didn’t.
Adverse events included issues such as gastrointestinal cramps, cardiovascular events, gastrointestinal bleeding and hematuria (blood in the urine).
While fewer runners who took analgesics before the race withdrew due to muscle cramps, these competitors had a higher incidence of gastrointestinal cramps resulting in an equal rate of withdrawal as those who did not take pills.
After the race, those who took painkillers felt worse than those who did not. These runners had significantly more muscle and joint pain and were nearly five times as likely to suffer from adverse events as those who did not take analgesics. The higher the dosage of painkillers, the more likely the chance a runner would suffer from adverse events.
Furthermore, all nine cases of hospitalization in the days after the marathon were of people who used analgesics before the race. Of the cases, three people had low or nonexistent urine output (a potential sign of renal failure), four had GI bleeding and two had a mild form of heart attack known as cardiac infarction.
Based on this information, researchers issued a strong word of caution in their report:
"We conclude that the use of analgesics before and during endurance sports may pose a serious health problem that should be addressed," the researchers wrote. "We would encourage greater awareness of the possible [adverse events] of these drugs, particularly among endurance sports enthusiasts. Further investigations are warranted to examine whether the use of analgesics before and during sports activities should be avoided altogether."