If you’re feeling some pain before or after your workouts, popping a couple ibuprofen — good ‘ol “vitamin I” — may be par for the course. In as little as 20 minutes, the drug works its magic, pain is reduced, and you can exercise or go about your day without any problems.
As I’ve gotten on in years, I’ve noticed myself reaching for the mega-bottle of ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet more and more often in order to alleviate my aching joints and tendons so I can engage in or recover from my weightlifting training. Getting old stinks.
But then a few months ago, I caught wind of some studies saying that taking ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs could hurt my precious, precious gainz because they prevent inflammation from occurring after exercise. Inflammation is necessary for muscle repair and is what allows a muscle to get bigger and stronger.
Ah, crap. Would I have to forgo the ibuprofen and train in pain lest it negate all the effort I put into my workouts?
I decided to investigate. Here is my report.
What Are NSAIDs and How Do They Relieve Pain?
Ibuprofen is a type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID for short. NSAIDs are the most widely used group of medications designed to reduce pain, inflammation, and fever. Ibuprofen is the most commonly used NSAID, and often referred to by the Advil brand name. Aspirin and naproxen (Aleve) are a couple other varieties. A popular topical NSAID is diclofenac (Voltaren gel).
NSAIDs work by blocking your body’s production of the chemicals associated with pain and inflammation, specifically enzymes called cyclooxygenases (COX). There are two forms of COX: COX-1 and COX-2.
Most NSAIDs work by blocking both forms of COX. These are called non-selective NSAIDs and include the most commonly used varieties: aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
Some NSAIDs only block COX-2 and are called selective NSAIDs. Celebrex is a selective NSAID. You usually need a doctor’s prescription to take a selective NSAID. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on over-the-counter non-selective NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen.
Most oral NSAIDs like Advil or Aleve take about 20 to 30 minutes to start working after ingestion. The pain reduction they offer lasts for 4-6 hours (Advil) or 8-12 hours (Aleve). A topical NSAID, like diclofenac, takes about the same amount of time to work, but doesn’t last as long.
Do NSAIDs Hurt Your Athletic Gains/Performance?
So we know how NSAIDs work to alleviate pain: they block two enzymes that are produced during the inflammatory process.
Now the million-dollar question: if inflammation drives muscle growth, and NSAIDs inhibit inflammation, will popping a few ibuprofen before you train diminish the results of your workouts?
Short answer: probably not.
Long answer: read on.
As mentioned above, several reports have been floating around that NSAIDs, particularly ibuprofen, can get in the way of training adaptations that allow you to lift more weight and run faster.
The theory is that by reducing the inflammation necessary for rebuilding damaged muscle after training, you prevent your muscles from adapting and getting bigger and stronger.
A 2002 study is