What are the NSAIDs risks for triathletes?

Don't let small injuries like sprains get worse by masking them with pain relievers.
Don't let small injuries like sprains get worse by masking them with pain relievers.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

We hear a lot these days about the dangerous side effects of many medications. So, by comparison, over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin seem fairly harmless -- especially when used by people in peak physical condition, like triathletes. But these drugs, known as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), can pose several dangers to those who participate in endurance sports.

When you're training for an event that includes a 2.4-mile (3.9-kilometer) swim, a 112-mile (180-kilometer) cycling course and a 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) marathon, you can expect to experience more than a few aches and pains. To treat these injuries, you probably pop a few NSAIDs -- those seemingly innocuous pain relievers that millions of people use for anything from headache pain to fevers to arthritis aches. The problem is that NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen) don't treat your injuries, they only treat the pain. If you use them too often, you may be masking a more serious problem your body is trying to warn you about. As a result, small injuries like sprains can worsen if they are ignored.


A particular risk of NSAIDs in triathletes is hyponatremia. Hpynoatremia causes low sodium levels in the blood, which can attract excess water and swelling in the cells. Rapid brain swelling can be a result of hypnoatremia. General complications of NSAIDs can include stomach ulcers and kidney complications. Overuse of NSAIDs -- like taking large doses after every run -- can increase these risks.

It's best to treat ongoing pain by one of the following methods:

  • Change your training or workout routine to reduce pressure on an injury.
  • Consult a personal trainer for proper stretching and warm-up exercises.
  • Use the R.I.C.E. treatment (rest, ice, compression, elevation)
  • Visit your physician or physical therapist if the pain continues or worsens.

This doesn't mean NSAIDs are totally off-limits. Unless your doctor advises otherwise, they're generally safe to use in moderation. However, to err on the side of caution, it may be wise to lay off of NSAIDs 24 hours before a triathlon event.

Keep reading for lots more information on triathlons.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Griffin, R. Morgan. "Pain Relief: How NSAIDs Work." WebMD.com. (Sept. 12, 2010)http://arthritis.webmd.com/features/pain-relief-how-nsaids-work
  • MayoClinc. "Hyponatremia." July 14, 2009. (Sept. 12, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hyponatremia/DS00974
  • Triathlons, the Fun Times Guide. "Triathletes and NSAIDs: Do you know the risks?" (Sept. 12, 2010)http://triathlons.thefuntimesguide.com/2008/11/nsaids.php
  • Waterbrook, M.D, Anna L. "Are NSAIDs Safe?" BeginnerTriathlete.com. (Sept. 12, 2010)http://www.beginnertriathlete.com/cms/article-detail.asp?articleid=1848
  • Wharam, Paul C., et. Al. "NSAID use increases the risk of developing hyponatremia during an Ironman triathlon." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Nov. 5, 2006. (Sept. 12, 2010)http://www.biomedsearch.com/nih/NSAID-use-increases-risk-developing/16679974.html