Dr. David Nieman is well familiar with both the challenges and profound satisfaction of pushing his body to the limit, having run 58 marathons and ultramarathons. But his interest is more than personal.  At his Human Performance Lab on the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, Nieman deploys treadmills, stationary bicycles, swimming pools, metabolic chambers and bod pods to investigate the impact of endurance sports on the human body, what supports performance and recovery – and what impairs it.  In the latter category, widespread use of ibuprofen is not only counterproductive, but potentially dangerous, Neiman says.

In a landmark study, Nieman and his team collected data and blood samples from 54 top-tier ultramarathon athletes participating in the 160 kilometer Western States Endurance Run.  Unsurprisingly, the runners experienced muscle damage and soreness, and 53% took ibuprofen to deal with it. What was a surprise was that the ibuprofen takers suffered much more inflammation afterward than the non-takers. Moreover, the ibuprofen undermined kidney function and induced some leakage of bacteria from the colon into the bloodstream,

“The idea is just entrenched in the athletic community that ibuprofen will help you to train better and harder,” Dr. Nieman said. “But that belief is simply not true. There is no scientifically valid reason to use ibuprofen before exercise and many reasons to avoid it.”  So, what can and should athletes do to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation – or even provide a bit of a performance edge?  Fortunately, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will provide many sports nutrients the body needs to recover and get back in the game. Some examples:

Beets boost stamina: This root vegetable contains compounds that help improve aerobic efficiency by nearly 20%, British researchers found.

Apples and endurance:  Athletes exercised 13% longer with quercetin, a compound found in apples. Other quercetin sources include: tea, capers, red onions and berries.

Post-game pineapple: Sidelined by tendinitis? Promising research suggests that bromelain — the enzyme found in pineapple — may help support growth of tendon cells, indicating a better healing response.

Cherries reduce soreness:  In one study, long-distance runners who drank cherry juice experienced 68% less soreness, compared to a placebo group.

Want to learn more about what’s happening on the North Carolina Research Campus? Check out our video interview with the expert, Dr. David Neiman himself, by clicking here.

Published May 1, 2014