As runners, we put our bodies through a lot. Especially when in training mode, soreness and discomfort from mile after mile of hitting the pavement is often inevitable even when you’re training smart. Aches and pains are one of the normal byproducts of an athlete working to improve their performance. A typical response people have to feeling uncomfortable is to take an over-the-counter painkiller. But should you really be taking Advil or Tylenol before running? Of course they can make you feel better in the short-term, but is taking these really in your body’s best interest?
When I was training for my first marathon many years ago, I took Advil before every single long run I did. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this practice was actually making me sick.
Here we’ll dive into the world of masking running pain with painkillers like Advil and Tylenol and find out why you shouldn’t be utilizing this practice any longer. We’ll also have alternatives for you to implement so you can still continue to run as pain-free as possible.
Why Taking Tylenol or Advil Before Your Run Might Seem Like a Good Idea
Ibuprofen (Advil) and Acetaminophen(Tylenol) are widely used pain relievers and are generally regarded as safe to use when taken in the exact dosages on the label or as directed by your doctor. They can be purchased over the counter (OTC) and unlike prescription painkillers, they are non-habit forming. Doctors recommend their use for certain ailments, and in those cases, you should adhere to your doctor’s guidelines. It certainly has its benefits and is prescribed for a reason.
But many people take these drugs without any consult with their doctor. It’s common for people to use them at the first sign of pain without a second thought, and no one questions when someone pops an Advil or Tylenol. The pain relief they provide for common ailments such as headaches or menstrual cramps make them an obvious go-to.
But just because they are overall safe and effective doesn’t mean they are without side affects and risks. I want to focus on the interaction of using each of these alongside running, however, and not the side effects in general. But you can find general information for each of these pain relievers here (Tylenol) and here (Advil).
The following information I am providing in regards to using these medications as part of your running training is well researched, but I will preface it with the fact that I am not a doctor. If you have questions or concerns, they should always be your professional resource.
I went a long time using Advil every time I went running – and suffered – and I think it’s important to know how these painkillers can affect you as a runner.
The Reasons Why Running and Painkillers Don’t Mix
Nobody likes to be in pain. And when there seems to be a simple fix by way of a relatively harmless medication, runners, like everyone else, may turn to them as a way to feel better. Utilizing Advil and Tylenol every once in awhile for a fever or pain relief isn’t what we’re talking about here though. It’s about using them specifically to reduce or eliminate the soreness that comes from lots of running and how they can be a detriment to your recovery and even be the cause for sickness and injury.
In short, don’t use them in conjunction with your running. Here’s why.
The Case Against Advil and Running
Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School noted that many marathoners and endurance athletes take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen before or after exercise to alleviate the pain associated with it. The study they quoted goes on to say that 75% of ultramarathon runners ingest these during a race. This rampant use makes it seem like it’s a completely acceptable thing to do in the athletic world.
But just because lots of people do something doesn’t make it the best choice. If Advil reduces inflammation and can get you through a workout more comfortably by taking a dose, what is the downside? Here are the key points:
- Long-Term use of any medication should be advised by a doctor. First, taking any medication long-term without advisement by your doctor shouldn’t be happening. Automatically popping Advil every time you run because you think you need it shouldn’t be a part of a normal, healthy workout routine.
- You are taking away your body’s normal response to muscle and tissue damage. Inflammation your body creates, though uncomfortable for you, is actually a sign that your body is doing what it’s supposed to in order to keep you healthy. It’s a normal part of the recovery process. Runners in training are likely to feel this inflammation after a hard quality workout or a long run session. This is because small micro-tears occur in the muscles, like tiny little injuries, and your body’s response is to heal them. If a runner always takes Advil before a run to prevent this from happening, then the body has no way of repairing and recovering itself on its own.
Those micro-tears are a sign of your body getting stronger and fitter. But guess what? When you alleviate that natural inflammatory response by way of medication, you’re actually negating those positive affects. And last time I checked, runners in training are trying to improve – not the other way around.
- You are more likely to overtrain and injure yourself. Ultimately, the more Advil you continue to take to mask this inflammation, the more likely you are to overtrain to the point of true injury. Why? Because the medication dulls the pain you feel, you’re able to push through something you might not be able to otherwise. Without the medication, you’d know to back off. With the medication relieving your pain, you could easily push too hard. And that’s a recipe for an overuse injury.
- Advil can cause stomach problems. Lastly, and this is the negative experience I had from taking Advil before each long run, is that ibuprofen can mess up your stomach. I was taking the Advil for chronic lower back pain that showed up every time I went running. But I got stomach distress after every single long run I did that year. I honestly thought it was just a normal side effect of running more miles than I ever had before. It wasn’t until much later that I suspected Advil was the cause. Once I quit using it, I no longer had any GI issues. I couldn’t really find any research on it at the time, but I don’t want anyone else having to deal with what I did. So, here are the facts:
A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that ibuprofen “aggravates exercise-induced small intestinal injury and induces gut barrier dysfunction.” They go on to state that its use should be discouraged. And though there can be a host of reasons why stomach problems may present themselves during a run, if you’re taking Advil, definitely rule this out as a possible culprit, says the Mayo Clinic.
The Case Against Tylenol and Running
Tylenol (acetaminophen) is often assumed to be the most safe OTC medication we can take for pain. There are certainly times that it’s appropriate to take and can make us thankful for modern medicine. So we just went through all the reasons you shouldn’t be taking Advil before running, so what about Tylenol? Would that be a safer alternative?
Tylenol is usually regarded as the safer option to take in conjunction with exercise. According to this article from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Marathon’s medical staffers won’t dispense ibuprofen because of its GI and kidney risks, but they will give runners needing pain relief acetaminophen instead. But safer doesn’t necessarily mean “safe” or “good.”
Though Tylenol has a much weaker anti-inflammatory effect than Advil, it can still take away your body’s ability to naturally heal and recover. If you need to take something sporadically, say to get rid of a headache or menstrual cramps in order to complete a training run, than Tylenol is the much better choice. Or might we recommend the best choice of taking a rest day? Runners are notorious for pushing through when they shouldn’t be.
Ultimately, Tylenol should never be used habitually to feel better from the normal soreness associated with hard running training.
Alternatives to Tylenol or Advil Before Your Run
Runners usually take Advil and Tylenol before a run because of the inflammation associated with the muscle and tissue damage that occurs from putting extra stress on their body. There is an incredible amount of force put on the joints, muscles, and tissues in your lower body when you run, so it’s only natural to feel discomfort when you’re upping the mileage from week to week. Add in extra speed and that compounds the distress you feel.
So, if you are sore, uncomfortable, or in pain, and need to get your run in, what are you to do? Nobody likes to be told they can’t do something without an alternative solution. Luckily, I have those for you. And no, they may not give you immediate relief like Advil or Tylenol can, but they are safer and better for your body. Plus, by letting your body do what it’s supposed to it can make you a better runner, too.
Here are some much safer alternatives to popping painkillers to get through your runs:
- Foam Roll. I cannot recommend this enough. And don’t just foam roll when you feel like it, be religious in its use. Foam rolling gets deep into tissues unlike typical stretching you might do. Yes, it’s going to feel uncomfortable if you’re working out some kinks and tightness, but that means it’s working and preparing you to be able to safely run again the next day. KT Tape and Voodoo Floss are a couple highly recommended options to alleviate discomfort.
- Get Better Sleep. This is honestly one of the most important things you can do to recover after all those miles. In researching for the article, “How Sleep Can Give You the Edge You Need in Marathon Training” we found out that one of sleep’s purpose is to regenerate cells and repair broken down tissue. You may think you’re getting by just fine on your 6.5 hours per night, when you’re actually inhibiting your recovery.
- Use ice or heat to recover. We discuss the best methods in this article: “Is Heat or Ice Better for Long Run Recovery?” Essentially, both work well, but one might be better than the other base on your specific ailment.
- Mix up the surfaces you run on. In our article, “Best Running Surfaces: The Verdict Might Surprise You,” you’ll find out how not always running on the same type of surface can actually help you avoid injury.
- Keep the easy days easy. If you always run hard, you will hurt yourself. Utilize rest days and make sure you’re doing plenty of easy running days between hard effort days. In this article we state, “Luckily, you don’t have to stop running in between hard runs to recuperate, you just have to run slower.” If you feel like you have to always be taking a painkiller for every run, it’s highly likely that you are in the midst of overtraining and not utilizing easy effort running like you should be.
- Increase mileage gradually. A good rule of thumb is to never add on 10% more mileage than you did in the previous weeks. Injuries can easily pop up when you don’t adhere to this principle. Additionally, it’s good to add in a “cutback week” every few weeks to give your body extra time to recover before bumping up again. My coach recommends 2 weeks up, 1 week back.
- Eat a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods. This allows your body to heal from the inside out in a natural way. Here’s a great list from Harvard Health! Foods rich in magnesium can also help with recovery from strenuous exercise.
If you’re truly in pain and physically can’t get through your run without taking a painkiller like Advil or Tylenol, then you have a bigger problem on your hands. You shouldn’t be running anyway. Try our suggestions listed above first, but otherwise, a visit to a doctor specializing in the type of pain you’re suffering is probably necessary.
Featured Image by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash