By Max Anderton, Men’s Fitness
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Towards the end of a big race muscle fatigue and pain kicks in and taking painkillers seems like a good idea. Don’t give in to that temptation. Several studies have found that popping pills while racing can affect your performance negatively and even damage your health.
For example, participants in the 2010 Bonn Marathon were asked if they used any non-prescription pain medication. The number of people who failed to finish because of pain and other health symptoms differed little between those who used painkillers and those who didn’t. However, far more of the people who took painkillers had to drop out due to stomach problems than those who didn’t. Runners who necked painkillers were also five times more likely to experience symptoms including stomach cramps, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal bleeding, blood in the urine and joint and muscle pain than those who took nothing.
Overall, nine runners who took painkillers ended up in hospital: three for temporary kidney failure after taking ibuprofen, four for bleeding ulcers after taking aspirin, and two after heart attacks (also aspirin). Not a single person who competed in the race without painkillers was admitted to hospital.
It gets worse. In 2006 physiologist David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus, did blood tests on competitors at the 100-mile (161km) Western States Endurance Run. He found that people who took painkillers (including anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen) before and during the race actually had more inflammation than those who didn’t. The pill-popping athletes also suffered kidney damage and even a particularly nasty condition in which colonic bacteria leaked into their blood.
Putting grim thoughts of poo-contaminated blood aside, it would seem logical to assume that painkillers must at least increase pain tolerance. Not so, says science – among Western States Endurance Run competitors, researchers found no reduction in pain and muscle soreness between those who had and hadn’t taken painkillers. In fact, the pill-poppers actually reported more inflammation and pain. In an endurance event everyone will suffer some degree of discomfort – that’s natural. But if a more serious pain makes an unwelcome appearance mid-race then it’s time to weigh up whether finishing is worth the risk of turning a niggle into an injury that blights all future training.
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Tape the pain
Don’t fancy the risks associated with popping pills mid-race? Kinesio tape could be an alternative to the drug cabinet for pain relief in endurance sports What? Used by top athletes including Novak Djokovic and Mario Balotelli, kinesio tape was developed in the 1970s by Japanese chiropractor Kenzo Kase. It promises to reduce fatigue and inflammation by providing support to joints and muscles without affecting your circulation and range of movement.
Kase’s research led him to conclude that the pain sensors lying between the epidermis and the dermis are responsible for most exercise-related joint and muscle discomfort. The theory is kinesio tape gently pulls on your skin, creating more space between the two. Kase claims this allows blood and lymphatic fluids to flow more freely and for excess heat to be more easily dissipated.
Does it work?
Multi-coloured tape in crazy patterns is commonplace at sporting events, but academics aren’t fully convinced. A clinical trial published in the Journal Of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found the tape improved range of motion in people with shoulder pain, but more studies need to be done to fully assess its effectiveness.
In the meantime, England football team physio Gary Lewin swears by the tape, as does the Chartered Institute of Physiotherapists. Try it to make up your own mind. You’ll find tutorials on YouTube to learn how to apply it on your knee and ankle, just don’t go overboard or you’ll risk looking like an early ’90s raver. No amount of pain relief is worth that kind of embarrassment.