The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) publishes a list of all the drugs banned in competitive sports every year. (1) Aspirin and Ibuprofen have never been on that list. Although it’s been rumored that maybe they should be. Could Anti-inflammatory medication be giving athletes the edge over their competition? The circulating rumors whisper that they increase muscular recovery and help improve oxygen circulation but you can’t always believe rumors.
Aspirin and Athletes
Aspirin and other non‐steroidal anti‐inflammatory drug (NSAID) are commonly used in the athletic world, especially among olympic athletes. (2) During the 2004 summer olympics 11.1% of athletes used some kind of NSAID. (3)
Although it is not hard to see why athletes who are constantly pushing themselves to the limit would use medications that alleviate muscle and body pain, there is some concern about the quantity being used. It has been observed that athletes are using more than the recommended dosage. (4) This shocking misuse of NSAIDs begs the question “ How does medication affect an athlete’s performance?”
What aspirin can do
Aspirin is a mild pain killer and an anti-inflammatory drug. There is no denying that it does aid muscle recovery. Also, by helping you rest more comfortably, without the constant throb of a twisted ankle, it helps you heal better.
However people can heal just as well in the same amount of time with the proper care and with an extra pinch of patience. When people take aspirin their muscles show early signs of improvement but they don’t actually heal any faster since it doesn’t speed up the regeneration of new muscle growth. It just makes the injury less inflamed. (5)
Aspirin can help with swelling but so can ice or any number of home remedies so that isn’t a big athletic advantage. (6)
What aspirin can’t do
Another myth is that taking aspirin helps circulate more oxygen through the body. Being able to circulate more oxygen more efficiently through your body would be highly beneficial in a competitive sport because oxygen is necessary for muscle use and energy conversion. But a study done on athletes and non-athletes found that aspirin does not affect the body’s ability to circulate oxygen during exercise. (7)
This rumor that aspirin helps circulate oxygen was probably started by an experiment on mountain climbers. In one study it was found that aspirin helps mountain climbers by thinning their chilled blood so it can circulate more oxygen through the body. (8) Unfortunately it does not help circulate oxygen through the body in regular conditions.
One study hypothesized that aspirin’s anti-inflammatory properties could help prevent heart attacks. (9) (A better ticker would be a huge advantage for an athlete) However, another study done on marathon runners found that taking aspirin before running a race could only help with cardiac arrest up to a certain point. (10)
That’s bad news for the runners but good news for aspirin. Since it does not appear to have any athletic advantage it is unlikely that it will ever be banned in competitive sports. This is a particular relief since aspirin is the most common prescription for inflammation. (11)
Aspirin may never be on the WADA’s banned drug list but I still wouldn’t advise taking any more than is recommended on the bottle.
There are some really bad side effects from taking too much aspirin. It can treat inflammation, but it can also cause you to have asthma for the rest of your life. (12)
Other possible side effect of prolonged use of anti-inflammatory drugs include gastrointestinal bleeding — that’s right, peeing blood! (13) The little edge that aspirin might give you over your competition is not worth the risk of never being able to play the game again.
It turns out that rumors about aspirin’s enhancement of athletic ability are just that — rumors. No studies have proven a definite athletic advantage to taking aspirin; although, its work-a-day benefits as an anti-inflammatory are undoubtably beneficial. It’s wide accessibility and relatively mild effects on the body make it fair game.
Keep in mind, there are no proven advantages to taking more the recommended dosage of aspirin. But if it will help you rest more effectively and heal better I would highly recommend taking it.