A – Funny you asked this because last night I particularly noticed the super rookie Leaf player, Auston Matthews, taking a whiff of the salts. BTW, Leafs lost the game to Columbus….
First, let’s be clear of what we’re discussing.
Smelling salts, also referred to as ammonia inhalants can come in packets about the size of small tootsie rolls. The usual active compound is ammonium carbonate and when released causes the muscles that control breathing to work faster.
Use by Hockey Players
The subject of it’s fairly common usage by NHL hockey players has certainly been publicized in the print.
In March 2016 there was a Sports Illustrated article (see here). And in 2014, the New England Sports Network (NESN) published a very funny article that included a GIF showing Phil Kessel’s reaction to inhaling the product (here).
Coyotes veteran Shane Doan, who, according to the article, says he hasn’t used them in three years, compared the experience to a quick window wipe at the gas pump, flushing out eyes weary from the road or the rink’s fluorescent lights.”
Use by Runners ?
You"ll often see track sprinters slapping themselves on the legs or face before the start of a race, with the aim of arousing themselves for the very intense effort ahead; but I've never seen a sprinter use smelling salts in the final moments before going to the blocks.
One might think that sprinters would be apt to employ the salts but then it’s very important for the sprinter to be calmly focusing on responding to the starter’s instructions and reacting to the gun; so taking a whiff of salts just before going to the blocks might risk undermining this process.
And as for the long distance runners, there's a huge difference between a hockey player's 40 second shift and a 40+ km. marathon lasting hours.That you haven’t seen any of the top marathoners imbibe is a strong indicator that the salts are not deemed to enhance performance. After all, as has been demonstrated coaches and athletes are forever exploring anything that might give an edge. Besides, the last thing you want to do is get over aroused risking too fast a pace in the beginning.
In fact, the only item I’ve come across is some lay speculation that the woman’s gold medalist in the 2008 Bejiing Olympic Marathon, Constantina Tomescu-Dita, of Romania, at age 38, may have inhaled smelling salts in the latter stages of the marathon (see here), but I haven’t seen any verification for this. BTW, it's not and illegal substance.
I’ve scoured the scientific literature and I’ve only come across two recent studies on this topic:
The first is a student’s Master thesis study conducted with young (early 20s) men and women at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, entitled,
The effects of pre-maximal exertion inhalation of ammonia and the performance effects during deadlift maximal tests (abstract here).
And the conclusion was that within the limitations of this study, there is no basis for the support of ammonia inhalation to improve 1-RM efforts in training, competition, or any other circumstance.
Cerebrovascular, cardiovascular and strength responses to acute ammonia inhalation (abstract here) .
Fifteen healthy males completed two trials.Trial one investigated cerebral artery blood flow velocity, heart rate and arterial pressure response to ammonia inhalation. During trial two, participants performed a maximal single mid-thigh pull (MTP) .