Why You Shouldn’t Reach For The Ibuprofen After Exercise

Men are built to deal with pain. That’s why we get man flu and why we can tolerate our partners digging their nails into us during things like rollercoaster rides, The Exorcist or childbirth. But sometimes pain hurts a bit too much, which is why scientists came up with ibuprofen.

Except there’s a hitch. A growing body of research has found that NSAIDs – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs please, Doc – such as ibuprofen increase the risk of heart attack, which is apparently only one step down from your partner digging her nails into your flesh, on the pain scale. In fact, a recent study by Danish researchers found that ibuprofen could increase the risk of cardiac arrest by 31%. Studies have also found an increased risk of heart failure, which is different to a heart attack but no less rubbish. All of which would suggest you might be better off not taking tablets when you’re in pain because all that inspirational stuff about getting fit neglected to tell you that exercise hurts.

It’s supposed to hurt – the soreness that follows exercise is down to microtears in the muscles. The repair process that kicks in afterwards is a key part of getting fitter and stronger. Luckily we have an expert on hand – Dr Mayur Ranchordas is senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition and physiology at Sheffield Hallam University, and a consultant to Premier League and Championship football clubs – to explain why, and to lead us out of the pain cave.

I did a workout two days ago so why does EVERYTHING hurt, now?!

We’re talking delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. It’s that ache you feel after a hard run or gym session, which can come on 24-48 hours afterwards, but you don’t just get it from working out. ‘DOMS is a symptom – people don’t realise you get it from different types of muscle damage,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Firstly there’s what’s called primary damage, which is structural damage to the muscle caused by a punch or a fall that shows up as a bruise.’ If you’re into sport you can suffer this from playing matches or getting hit during sparring. ‘Then there’s exercise-induced DOMS, which you get from running or lifting weights,’ Ranchordas adds. ‘In this case you have to remember that the soreness is a good thing, because your muscles are repairing themselves stronger, to make you fitter. Without the soreness, you won’t get the benefits.’

‘Just because you’re sore doesn’t mean you can’t perform’

I’ll take some ibuprofen then, right?

‘One hundred per cent NO. Two things: firstly, DOMS doesn’t impair performance. That’s a misconception. Just because you’re sore doesn’t mean you can’t perform, and research has shown that performance is no worse when people feel DOMS. Secondly, if you’re popping pills you’re masking the pain, so how do you know whether it’s DOMS or an injury? You might have primary damage rather than the soreness you need to get fitter. But you won’t know if you’re suppressing the aches and pains,’ says Ranchordas.

OK, so what can I do to help me recover?

‘Research is stacking up for the benefits of protein, especially dairy protein. It seems that 40g is the best amount to reduce soreness and aid recovery, which is more than we thought. Research into full-fat milk shows the protein in it gives real benefits, but you won’t get 40g from a pint of milk, so add a scoop of whey protein and have it immediately after exercise.’

Fair enough but I’m still, you know, SORE!

‘Antioxidants known as polyphenols have been found to reduce inflammation, which is one of the symptoms of DOMS. You can get them from fruit such as pomegranates, cherries, bilberries and blackberries. As an example, footballers have a lot of fixture congestion near the end of the season. They’ll be playing two or three times a week, sometimes with only 48 hours rest, so the teams do everything they can to help them recover. That will include ice baths, massage and polyphenols.’

‘Take slow-release protein before bed and again first thing in the morning’

OK, I’m loaded with berry smoothie and there’s ice in my bath – what else?

‘People think about the immediate recovery phase but it doesn’t end with your workout. The next 12-24 hours are key, and you should be taking 20-25g of protein every three hours. You might have protein in your lunch, and then take on most of your protein at dinnertime, but there are two time points that get neglected: you should take slow-release protein before bed – cottage cheese is good – and again first thing in the morning. Otherwise you might be eating your dinner at 8pm and not taking on any more protein until lunchtime the following day, at best. Get your protein hit!’

WHAT NEXT? See, DOMS isn’t so bad for you after all – in that it’s good for you. Try inducing some to get fitter and stronger by attempting this 15-minute metabolism-boosting total body and abs workout. Go!

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.