TCM for athletic bodies

Among the sporty set, Eastern medicine techniques are becoming de rigeur.

There’s a push-pull to staying fit that involves working hard enough to make progress, and resting sufficiently to promote recovery and stave off over-exertion. Yin and yang is also central to Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it’s no surprise that the fit incorporate Eastern practices into their lives to fight pain, stress, injury and even aging. Although TCM has thousands of years of empirical evidence in its corner, it's now undergoing the sort of scientific scrutiny that's the norm in Western medicine. “There is so much research going today on about acupuncture’s efficacy,” says Robert MacDonald, director of healing at Exhale Spa. “It’s gaining a foothold in Western medicine’s house because of this.”

Now, some are practicing a very modern-seeming acupuncture, as well as techniques with less needling.


As if imitating a porcupine wasn’t enough, this method combines electro-stimulation (like a physical therapist might) with traditional acupuncture. A micro-current goes directly into the muscle, causing a too-tight muscle to contract and relax until it relaxes on its own. It’s a short cut to releasing muscle tension in a way massage can’t, MacDonald says. Electroacupuncture can also stimulate muscles like your glutes that may not be firing properly, speeding recovery and reducing pain, says Alexandra Vander Baan, owner of Yintuition Wellness in Boston, MA.

ear seeds

Attending races often involves significant travel, which is a stress that’s hard to train for. So athletes are sometimes left looking for ways to ratchet down their stress levels without turning to pharmaceutical intervention. Shem Men, or the practice of ear seeds, can act as a hedge. Small beads are taped to the ears and squeezed a few times an hour to stimulate specific points, often producing a calming effect. You wear them for three or four days, then toss them. “The ear is a microsystem, affecting different systems of the body,” says MacDonald. Since your ear is also connected to your brain, this practice tends to tap the emotional system, relaxing your system, whether you’re dealing with OCD or trouble sleeping, notes Gabriel Sher, L.Ac., an acupuncturist in private practice in Manhattan. Ask your acupuncturist practitioner to add them at the end of your last session before you head for the race.

facial rejuvination

You can just tell when someone trains a ton outdoors. That leathery look is a badge of pride, but also bad for your skin. Facials help undo this by promoting cellular turn-over. And according to Eastern medicine, skin issues can signal blockage elsewhere in the body. “For example, if a person has acne, we’re going to look at the lungs and the large intestines,” says MacDonald. Acupuncture needles that target organ systems can have a secondary, cosmetic boon. “By working with these organ systems, we can reduce the appearance of certain skin issues such as acne, rosacea, eczema and even psoriasis.”


Athletes looking to enhance recovery are starting to swear by cupping, says Vander Baan. However, most don’t know why it’s done. (For the uninitiated: Glass jars are suctioned usually to the back or upper legs, then slid along oiled skin. Red circular bruises are their tell-tale) In TCM, pain and decreased muscle function are often a result of stagnation of Qi (or energy) and blood, says MacDonald. It can be a result of trauma (think about a bruise—blood stuck in one area needs to clear before it returns to normal). Other times, there's no bruise and, instead, the muscle is locked into a more contracted state. Stagnation can cause more pain and more contraction. The sliding act stretches out the muscle fibers and the myofascial tissue (the dense tissue surrounding the muscles). "We draw the stuck blood and Qi to the surface of the skin," he says. Once at the surface, your body can disperse it. "At the same time, the area is flooded with fresh, oxygenated blood, and normal function and circulation is restored."