Smelling Salts: Weightlifters Use Them, Should Runners Too?

Is this the secret to extra energy, or could it cause more harm than good?

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Runners often explore various strategies to enhance their performance and combat fatigue during intense training sessions or races. 

One controversial method that has gained attention is the use of smelling salts. Commonly associated with reviving individuals who have fainted, smelling salts contain a mixture of ammonia and water and are believed to stimulate the respiratory system. 

In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of runners using smelling salts and consider whether this practice is a viable solution for improving athletic performance.

Smelling Salts: Weightlifters Use Them, Should Runners Too? 1
Vial of Smelling Salts

What are Smelling Salts and How Can They Help Runners?

Stimulation of Respiratory System:   

The primary active ingredient in smelling salts is ammonia (NH₃). 

When the sealed capsule is broken, ammonia gas is released. The strong, pungent odor stimulates the nasal membranes, prompting an instantaneous inhalation response.

This reflex increases airflow into the lungs, facilitating a more rapid exchange of gases, particularly oxygen.

Impact on Blood Flow and Oxygenation:

As runners inhale the ammonia vapors, blood vessels in the nasal passages and lungs dilate.

This vasodilation enhances blood flow, leading to increased oxygenation of the blood. The improved oxygen supply is thought to contribute to heightened alertness and a transient surge in energy.

Smelling Salts: Weightlifters Use Them, Should Runners Too? 2

Effect on the Nervous System:

The rapid inhalation of ammonia triggers the release of adrenaline, a hormone associated with the “fight or flight” response.

This neurochemical reaction also results in heightened mental alertness and a temporary boost in energy, making it an appealing option for athletes seeking a quick pick-me-up during intense physical exertion.

Safety Considerations:

Respiratory Irritation:

It’s important to note that while smelling salts can be effective in stimulating the respiratory system, they can also be harsh on the lungs and airways. Prolonged or frequent exposure may lead to irritation, particularly for individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Smelling Salts: Weightlifters Use Them, Should Runners Too? 3

Limited Duration of Effects:

The effects of smelling salts are typically short-lived. 

The rapid energy surge and increased alertness are immediate, but they may not provide a sustained solution for endurance athletes. Runners should be aware that relying solely on smelling salts may result in a temporary surge of energy followed by potential fatigue.

When considering using smelling salts, it is important to consider that although the mechanism of smelling salts offers a quick and potent method for alertness and arousal, there are potential health risks and the benefits are short-lived.

Runners should approach the use of smelling salts with caution, explore alternative strategies for long-term performance enhancement, and consult with healthcare professionals to ensure their safety and effectiveness in an individual context.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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