Have you ever popped an ibuprofen or two to fend off post-workout soreness? You're hardly alone. In fact, roughly 60 percent of runners in one study said they used NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories) both during training and recovery. Ultramarathoners were the most extreme users, with a full 70 percent popping anti-inflammatories before races.
But is all that medicine helping to outwit injuries and improve performance? Or could it actually be doing the opposite? To find out, let's take a dive into the physiology of inflammation.
How does inflammation work?
Every time you go for a run, damage occurs in your muscles and connective tissue. In the same way that micro-tears happen when you lift heavy weights, the harder and longer you run, the more damage you do. Your body responds to those micro-tears by cuing up your immune system to flood the overworked area with inflammatory cells.
To your body, those inflammatory cells have a mission: They're setting up shop to fix and rebuild the damaged areas. As a bonus, when they put them back together, they'll be strong than ever. That's the training effect.
But to you, those inflammatory cells leave you feeling increasingly stiff and sore over the couple of days following a hard run.
What about running injuries?
Inflammation gets a lot of flak for causing running injuries like tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and more. And it's true: Just like your body sends out the immune system's inflammatory army to fight run-of-the-mill muscle damage, it responds even more forcefully to an actual injury.
Guilt by association? Maybe not. Some experts believe that inflammation breeds more inflammation, or secondary muscle damage. But that theory is far from proven. In research done on patients with overuse injuries so persistent that they've opted for surgery, scientists noted the absence of inflammation on the inside. Instead, they just saw damaged, broken tissues that needed to be healed.
A better way to keep the physical therapist away
It makes sense, then, that some of the best ways to rehab — or better yet, prehab — running injuries may not be to block the body's natural response to them. It's building a better support network by doing the right cross-training and strengthening exercises.
Smarter training can play a role, too. If you run hard day in and day out, you not only won't perform at your best, but you're pushing damaged muscles to their breaking point.
Making sure you give your muscles time to heal, recover, and send the inflammation army packing in between hard sessions. This helps you reap more fitness gains and helps to prevent injuries like shin splints, the pain in the front of your lower leg that often crops up when you do too much too fast.
The (possible) downside to squelching soreness
Sure, nobody likes to be sore. But what if that pain is there for a reason — to remind you to take it easy? Push through, and you may make your way from garden-variety muscle soreness to an overuse injury that's harder to shake.
Some evidence also suggests that while ibuprofen might help to ease aches and pains, it could also interfere with your body's normal routine of run/heal/repeat. For one thing, the drug may hamper your kidneys' ability to clear out the by-products of your body's healing process, potentially leading to a buildup of oxidative stress. It also could erase some of the training gains that happen as a result of going through the natural adaptive process.
Yes, you can fight inflammation naturally. Here's how
When it comes to managing muscle soreness, the one surefire fix is time. Typically, soreness builds over the course of a day or two, peaks, and goes away within a week.
A quicker fix? Hair of the dog. That's right, an easy jog is one proven strategy for relieving soreness (albeit temporarily).
The right foods may also provide a leg up in reducing soreness. Try this:
Spice it up.
Turmeric, found in many Indian dishes (as well as delicious with grated ginger as a latte) has been shown in studies to battle knee pain and post-workout muscle soreness alike.
Go for healthy fats.
DHA supplements (one component of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish as well as eggs, flaxseeds, and walnuts) have also been shown to quell training-induced soreness. Non-vegetarians should already be eating fish twice a week, so that's a good place to start.
Refuel with a power smoothie.
One ingredient to try: frozen pineapple chunks. Bromelain, a mixture of enzymes found in pineapple, is said to have special healing powers that may reduce inflammation and pain. As an added bonus, the tropical sweetness is enough to mask virtually any amount of dark leafy greens you can cram in (another anti-inflammatory superfood).