5 Ways Acupuncture Can Improve Athletic Performance
By Kim Peirano, DACM, LAc
From Acupuncture Today
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. 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 and how can we talk to our patients about it? Here are five ways acupuncture helps improve sports performance.
#1 Relieves Stress & Anxiety
Anxiety and stress can hinder performance when athletes lose focus or control of their anxiety about the game or race. Roaring crowds, dependant teammates, tough coaches and parents all play into athletic anxiety and stress. As such, 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 help decrease cognitive and somatic anxiety, and stress in adolescent athletes prior to performance.1 Stress in the body occurs in two main ways – stress to the mental or cognitive system and physically, or somatically. 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 Increases Blood Flow & Muscle Capacity
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.2 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 Increases Awareness & 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.3 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 Improves 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, 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 modulates the state of mood and improved the athletes rating of fatigue after competitions.2
#5 Improves Endurance Capacity
Not all sports are quick sprints, and every sport regardless of the length of play requires some degree of endurance. Acupuncture studies have shown functional improvements in hemodynamics of endurance athletes – how well our body circulates blood, lowered the heart rate. Also, 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.2
Other studies have also shown increased enhancements to running times in long distance athletes when receiving acupuncture treatments directly before racing.4 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.
Acupuncture can be that extra edge to competition for athletes, keeping their head in the game, easing performance anxiety, improving recovery time so they can get back out there sooner, increasing muscular capacity and of course improving endurance capacity. A suggested treatment regimen would be weekly treatments with increasing frequency leading up to and following competitions.
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.
- Zarei S, Shayestehfar M, et al. Acupuncture decreases competitive anxiety prior to a competition in young athletes: a randomized controlled trial pilot study. Journ of Complem and Inte Med, Mar 2017;14(1).
- Ahmedov S. Ergogenic effect of acupuncture in sport and exercise: A brief review. Journ of Stren and Cond, May 2010;24(5):1421-1427.
- Wang XR, Shi GX, et al. Acupuncture ameliorates cognitive impairment and hippocampus neuronal loss in experimental vascular dementia through Nrf2-mediated antioxidant response. Free Radic Biol Med, Dec 2015 89:1077-84.
- Benner S, Benner K. Improved performance in endurance sports through acupuncture. Sportverletz Sportschaden, 2010 Sep;24(3):140-3.
Dr. Kim Peirano is a practicing acupuncturist in San Rafael, California with her practice Lion’s Heart Wellness, and is a Doctorate of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (DACM) graduate from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM). Dr. Kim utilizes an intuitive approach to her treatment strategy, with the foundation of Chinese medicine and the addition of intuitive insight, abilities and tools. She sees the body and our illnesses as signposts to have curiosity about and treats patients with an approach to help them better understand the spiritual origination of their issue or illness in addition to the biological approach.