Acupuncture is an incredibly useful tool to treat conditions involving pain; from sports injury to arthritis to headaches and everywhere in between, but beyond pain, can acupuncture actually help to improve sports performance? Whether you’re a novice to a new sport, an avid gym goer, an amateur or professional athlete, acupuncture can be a great addition to your workout routine to help improve peak performance and elevate you to the next level of your fitness. Sports Acupuncture has been used all over the World, from treating injury to helping athletes increase performance levels. Acupuncturists are commonly employed by major sports teams all across the globe, in the bay area from the San Francisco Giants, 49ers to the San Francisco Ballet. Athletes are turning to acupuncture to not only help with pain and injury, but to help improve performance and compete at optimal levels.
So how does acupuncture help improve athletic performance? Aside from helping to treat injuries, there are many other mechanisms of action that acupuncture helps address which result in an enhanced and improved performance for athletes. Here are five key ways acupuncture helps improve athletic performance.
#1 Relieve Stress and Anxiety
If you’ve ever been in a competition, you’ll know that in addition to either being able to perform at your peak or know the material for the match there is a huge mental and emotional component to competitions. Anxiety and stress can hinder performance when athletes lose focus or control of their anxiety about the game or race, and ‘keeping your head in the game’ is a crucial component to being a top level athlete. Some level of competition anxiety or stress can actually increase performance, but the line is fine between just the right amount and too much. Roaring crowds, dependant teammates, tough coaches and parents all play into athletic anxiety and stress, and acupuncture is a great tool to help keep athletes grounded, focused and relieve that stress and anxiety before a competition. Acupuncture has been shown to actually help decrease cognitive and somatic anxiety and stress in adolescent athletes prior to performance (Zarei S, Shayestehfar M, Memari AH, SeifBarghi T, Sobhani V, March 1, 2017). Stress in the body occurs in two main ways - stress to the mental or cognitive system, which is is how we think about the game or our performance in it, it’s getting ‘psyched up’ or ‘out’ before a big game and keeping our head in the game while we play it. The second way stress affects us in sports performance is physically, or somatically; this is how our body and muscles react and function in a game, it’s whether or not we are physically capable, or how our stamina holds up throughout the competition. This brain-body connection is the root of peak sports performance, and acupuncture is a very useful tool to help improve the functions of both by decreasing stress and anxiety of the brain and the body.
#2 Increase Blood Flow and Muscle Capacity
When we use acupuncture to help heal a wound or injury, the result is often due to increased blood flow, lymphatic drainage, decreased inflammation and overall boost in the mental state of the patient. It’s these same principles which can help to improve sports performance in a healthy patient. When an athlete is injury free, this means they’re open to achieving the next level of performance and fitness, and we can actually use acupuncture to help speed this process. In a review of studies looking at the sports performance enhancing effects of acupuncture, it was found that acupuncture helped to increase blood flow, and had an increased intramuscular enzyme activity in athletes. Acupuncture treatment based on traditional Chinese approach significantly increased athletic performance and biomechanical indexes, maximal peak moment of force and average power. The results indicated an ability for acupuncture treatment to enhance rapid strength in athletes (Ahmedov, S, 2010). By boosting blood flow and increasing muscle capacity, acupuncture helps athletes achieve their next level of performance, increasing strength and ability in these athletes improves performance when it comes to game or race time,
#3 Increase Awareness and Response Time
For athletes of all skill levels, being present and responsive to the sport at hand is essential to performing well, a quicker response time, better hand-eye coordination or ability to read the playing field differentiate top athletes from the competition. Acupuncture is widely used to improve cognitive function, it can help improve memory, decrease cognitive decline in dementia patients, and help clear a patient’s mental state so that they are more aware and present in their body and mind. The benefit of receiving an acupuncture treatment can be likened to the same physiologic effects of meditation on the brain, this deep relaxation state helps regenerate tissue in the body and the brain, which helps to slow cognitive decline and help the body recover faster. Studies find that acupuncture has a neuroprotective effect and can actually slow the aging process, and this means big gains when it comes to athletic performance (Wang XR, Shi GX, Yang JW, Yan CQ, Lin LT, Du SQ, et al., 2015). We are not only helping the body to recover or perform better, we’re helping the mind to do so as well. Helping athletes get their head in the game, and experience an increased state of awareness or increased response time helps to make them better athletes, sometimes it’s not just braun that wins the game or the race, it’s brains!
#4 Shorten Recovery Time
One thing that slows athletes from making peak performance or improving throughout the season, is the length of recovery time from workouts or games. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or a lowered immune system function as a result of heavy training, or over-training can easily put a stop or at least a slow down to an athlete’s training schedule. In the same manner which acupuncture can help to treat injury, it can also help shorten the recovery time after training for most athletes. Heavy training and activity levels can stress the neuroendocrine response and immune status, and this ultimately leads to a decrease in overall performance. Studies utilizing acupuncture after each game in the competitive period showed an inhibition of the exercise-induced increase in cortisol and a decrease in immunoglobulin levels after each acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture also modulate the state of mood and improved the athletes rating of fatigue after competitions (Ahmedov, S, 2010).
#5 Improve Endurance Capacity
Not all sports are quick sprints, and every sport regardless of the length of play requires some degree of endurance. Endurance athletes have a tricky game to play with their sports, toeing a fine line between increased output and hanging in for the long haul, a 26.2 mile run or swim requires a very different mechanism of action for the athlete, keeping them focused in body and mind and making sure to accurately pace in order to finish the event strong. Acupuncture studies have shown functional improvements in hemodynamics of endurance athletes - how well our body circulates blood, lowered the heart rate - making longer distances more attainable without over taxing the heart, and demonstrated higher velocity at the anaerobic threshold levels of athletes - giving an athlete an increased ability to do more (Ahmedov, S, 2010). Other studies have also shown increased enhancements to running times in long distance athletes when receiving acupuncture treatments directly before racing (Benner S, Benner K, 2010). By lowering the stress on the heart, improving blood flow and increasing the athlete’s threshold for activity, acupuncture helps endurance (and sprint) athletes to compete at optimal levels, these boost from the acupuncture treatments helps to reduce race stressors and ultimately lower race times.
If you’re an athlete of any skill level, keeping your body in top working order should be a number one priority, we can’t compete or train if we’re injured, and even when we do all the right workouts and nutrition plans, there is always someone out there with an extra edge. Acupuncture can be that extra edge to competition, keeping your head in the game, easing performance anxiety, improving recovery time so you can get back out there sooner, increasing muscular capacity and of course improving endurance capacity are really just a few ways that acupuncture helps athletes compete at top levels. A suggested treatment regimen would be weekly treatments with increasing frequency leading up to and following competitions. There is no special treatment plan to help improve sports performance, but your treatment points and plan will be decided on by your Acupuncturist according to your constitution, training patterns and tendency toward injury or weaknesses. Athletes may or may not notice immediate effects on race times or performance as most studies that indicate these results took place over a long period of time and measured factors which aren’t overtly noticed, but over time consistent acupuncture treatments will show their benefit with the above factors, most notably being less injury and faster recovery, followed by improved athletic outcomes.
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Dr. Kim Peirano, DACM, LAc is the Owner and Acupuncturist at Lion's Heart Wellness, the San Francisco Bay Area and Marin's #1 Cosmetic Acupuncturist and #1 Holistic Healer.