Poor man’s tramadol

Simon Schofield looks at the adverse effects that over-the-counter painkillers may have on cyclists

Riding through the pain is part of the culture of cycling. We thrive on adversity, and there are few cyclists who haven’t recounted with a perverse pleasure just how much suffering has been endured on a ride to astonished non-cyclists.

But there is evidence that common or garden medication often swallowed by cyclists to dull an injury, can do a great deal more harm than good when taken with hard exercise.

This is not tramadol, the powerful painkiller that some pros are rumoured to include in that ‘finish bottle’, to help them ignore the pain signals surging from leg to brain as their bodies are strained to breaking point.

It’s the cheap and easily available, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, otherwise known as ibuprofen. Cyclists will often pop a pill or two before or during a long ride, perhaps to soothe an aching knee or calm a twinge in the lower back. But research shows that combining ibuprofen with exercise damages the gut.

Dutch researchers were interested in the effects of taking ibuprofen to prevent exercise-induced pain and so improve performance — the very same idea as tramadol use in the peloton.

They recruited nine well-trained cyclists and gave them 400mg of ibuprofen before a hard ride. The same cyclists were given the same drug and then asked to rest.

Results showed that ibuprofen and exercise increased the chances of ‘leaky gut’, or in scientific parlance, the combination aggravates exercise-induced small intestinal injury and induces gut barrier dysfunction.

In simple terms, bad stuff can get out of your gut and into your bloodstream more easily, and it didn’t happen with the cyclists who rested. This led the researchers to conclude: “Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs consumption by athletes is not harmless and should be discouraged.”

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