The Pill Culture in the life of a Recreational Endurance Athlete

The Pill Culture in the life of a Recreational Endurance Athlete


Taylor Phinney, the US cyclist, 4th place in Olympic Road Race and Time Trials, talked about getting the pill culture out of the sport.

In the interview, he addresses the issues of popping a pill in order to dull the edge of a difficult sport. Although he talks from the view of a professional cyclist, some of his comments resonated with me. It got me thinking about various instances when I’ve seen, heard, or used pills/pain medications. The research and opinions about NSAIDs during marathon (eg – Drugs for Pain Relief from Runner’s World) has gotten us to do was look at other alternatives, instead of wondering about the side effects of these alternatives.

In this blog post, I am trying to take a look at this from a moral/philosophical standpoint. I am not addressing the medical effects at all.


“It doesn’t break the rules, as such, but the notion of riders gulping painkillers and caffeine tablets in the finale of races or having a sleeping pill dependency is still a troubling one. He says that many riders use products such as muscle relaxants, Stilnox or Ambien in order to rest at night.”

While I have never taken a sleeping pill, I know of many instances when someone has taken Melatonin 2 nights before a race. The night that most acknowledge as the ‘resting night’ since it is hard to fall asleep the night before a race.

Is this absolutely necessary or is there other techniques one can adopt to fall asleep? What if you did not get enough sleep (mother runners, anyone?!)? Would that completely derail you or would you accept it as another race-day situation and make the best of it?

“Another issue is taking something for an improvement, getting into that mentality. You have to ask why are you taking a painkiller? You are doing that to mask effects that riding a bike is going to have on your body…essentially, you are taking a painkiller to enhance your performance.”

“But the whole reason we get into sport in the first place is to test our bodies, to test our limits. If you are taking something that is going to boost your performance, that is not exactly being true to yourself, not exactly being true to your sport.”


Taking a Tylenol (or two) to “mask” the pain towards the end of a marathon is common. I will admit to carrying a couple of tablets just-in-case (I’ve only taken them at Chicago this year, not previously at Chicago or New Orleans). But yes, I have taken one after the race to help with the muscle soreness. Essentially masking the effects of what I just put my body through and extending that super-human feeling.

If that masking of pain gets us through the last 10k of a marathon and helps us push to that PR, isn’t that a thin line to enhancing performance?

“If it was up to me, I would say if you need cortisone, you shouldn’t be racing. You should get that injury fixed and then you can come back, but you are not racing any more in the meantime.”

I have heard of lots of instances of cortisone shots needed to complete a marathon. I’ve seen individuals make that tough decision to get a shot and go ahead with a race, a race for which they have been preparing for months! Luckily, I have never been in this situation and so cannot comment too much on this.

“It is the same thing with painkillers or something like Sudafed. If you wake up with a fever and you need to take some sort of painkillers to be racing, then you probably shouldn’t be racing in the first place.”

Of all the statements from Taylor’s interview, this one hits home hard. I ran Chicago Marathon with a fever and chest congestion. With 2 Tylenols and a Mucinex. And I fully recognize now that it wasn’t the best decision I made. Could I have not shown up at the start line? Maybe. But I didn’t think of that an option.

This is where that moral gray line comes in. How much are you willing to risk when nature throws a wild curveball at you?

“They are just painkillers or anti-cramping pills or caffeine, but they are still pills…it is still a grey area in my mind. I feel like if you train with proper nutrition and proper hydration and if you race with proper nutrition and proper hydration, why do you need that stuff for anyway?”

A well noted pointed for a pro-athlete and for a recreational athlete as well.

How much of dependency do we have on these painkillers? We, being a recreational runner who completes endurance events.
How much of this can we avoid by either taking a moral high ground or by simply listening to our body and understanding its limitations when we push it?


Have you taken a painkiller during an event? How do you view it? Is it something trivial and it doesn’t come anywhere close to the doping crisis?
What about cortisone shots or something powerful? The only thing that helped you get through your endurance event. Was that a necessary evil or would you do it in a heartbeat again when faced with the choice of losing all those months of training?
Have you taken recourse to a sleeping aid to get a good night’s sleep before a long event?
What are your general thoughts on this thin grey area?

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  • I appreciate your attention to this issue in the arena of the recreational athlete. Taylor Phinney is one of my favorite riders and though he is pretty young, I have admired him for a while. He is also really well-spoken and I think puts the issue at hand in an interesting way and raises some important questions. There is “maximizing efficiency” and there is “performance enhancement.” How far apart are they? Some people make the argument that they use only “natural enhancement” but that is basically what LA is being accused of doing – the blood doping, or using your own stored blood to enhance your recovery so that you are fresher and stronger for the next day’s racing. That is arguably a “natural” enhancement but is still cheating in my mind. (And in the minds of the UCI!) We all do a certain amount of “performance enhancement.” (We might think of it as staying hydrated and properly fueled – I can’t imagine anyone thinking of that as being improper.) So the real question is when does “performance enhancement” become “cheating”? Even if that means – as in the case of the recreational athlete – we are really just cheating ourselves.

    • True !!! Very thin line and very grey!

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