5 Ways Acupuncture Improves Athletic Performance

Kim Peirano Acupuncturist San Rafael, CA

Dr. Kim Peirano, DACM, L.Ac. is the Owner and Acupuncturist behind Lion's Heart. Kim is a Doctorate of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine graduate from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and a Master’s of Science graduate from the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, CA, and a California State Board... more

Acupuncture is a very useful tool for treating conditions involving pain; from sports injury to arthritis to headaches and everywhere in between. Beyond pain, can acupuncture actually improve sports performance? Whether you’re an avid gym-goer, amateur athlete, 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 often employed by major sports teams all across the globe, in the bay area from the San Francisco Giants, 49ers to the San Francisco Ballet.

Many athletes are turning to acupuncture to not only help with pain and injury but to help improve their performance and compete at optimal levels. So, how does acupuncture improve athletic performance? Aside from treating injuries, there are many other mechanisms of action that acupuncture helps address which results in enhanced and improved performance for athletes. Here are five key ways acupuncture can improve athletic performance.

#1 Relieves Anxiety and Stress

If you have ever been in a competition, you will know that there is a huge mental and emotional component, in addition to being able to perform at your peak. Anxiety and stress can hinder an athlete's performance if they 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 there is a fine line 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 decrease cognitive and somatic anxiety and stress in adolescent athletes prior to the 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 how we think about the game or our performance. 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 a sports performance is physically, or somatically; this is how our body and muscles react and function in a game. This is 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 can help improve the functions of both by decreasing stress and anxiety of the brain and the body. ​

#2 Increased Blood Flow and Muscle Capacity

When acupuncture is used to help heal an injury or wound, the result is often due to increased blood flow, lymphatic drainage, decreased inflammation, and an overall boost in the mental state of the patient. It’s these same principles that 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 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 the traditional Chinese approach significantly increased athletic performance and biomechanical indexes, the 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 for a game or race.

#3 Increased Response Time and Awareness

For athletes of all skill levels, being present and responsive is essential to performing well, having a quicker response time, better hand-eye coordination, or ability to read the playing field. Acupuncture is widely used to improve cognitive function and improve memory. It can decrease the 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 of the brain. This relaxation state helps regenerate tissue in the body and the brain, which helps to slow cognitive decline and help the body recover faster.  

Studies show that acupuncture has a neuroprotective effect and can actually slow the aging process, which means better 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. It’s not just braun that wins the game or the race, it’s brains!

#4 Shorter Recovery Time

The length of recovery time from workouts or games slows athletes from making peak performance or improving throughout the season. 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 an athlete’s training schedule. In the same manner, which acupuncture can help treat an 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 usually 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 athlete's rating of fatigue after competitions (Ahmedov, S, 2010). 

#5 Improves Endurance 

Not all sports involve quick sprints, every sport regardless of the length of play requires some degree of endurance. Endurance athletes have a tricky game to play with their sports, with 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. They must remain focused on 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, lowering the heart rate. This makes longer distances more attainable without overtaxing 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 compete at optimal levels. The acupuncture treatments help to reduce race stressors and ultimately lower race times. ​If you’re an athlete of any skill level, keeping your body in top working condition 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 a competition, easing performance anxiety, improving recovery time so you 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 or games.

There is not a special treatment plan to help improve sports performance, but your treatment points and plan will be decided by your acupuncturist. This is according to your constitution, training patterns, and the tendency toward injury or weaknesses. Athletes may or may not notice immediate effects on race times or performance, most studies indicate that these results took place over a long period of time. 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.  

About the Author: 

Dr. Kim Peirano, DACM, LAc, is a practicing Acupuncturist in San Rafael, CA, she is a published author, speaker, and intuitive healer. Dr. Kim’s treatments aim to access the deep inner workings of the mind-body-spirit connection to help her patients unlock the root cause of disharmony. Dr. Kim uses acupuncture as a tool to help her patients experience a deeper level and layer of their most authentic self - free of pain, stress, tension, and full of confidence and vitality. For more information on her practice, offerings and to receive free meditations, healing images, and more please visit her at lionsheartwellness.com.

REFERENCES:

  1. Zarei S, Shayestehfar M, Memari AH, SeifBarghi T, Sobhani V (March 1, 2017).  Acupuncture decreases competitive anxiety prior to a competition in young athletes: a randomized controlled trial pilot study. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Vol 14:1.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jcim-2015-0085
  2. Ahmedov, S (May, 2010).  Ergogenic effect of acupuncture in sport and exercise: A brief review.  Journal of strength and conditioning research. May 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 5 - p 1421-1427  Retrieved from: doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d156b1
  3. Wang XR, Shi GX, Yang JW, Yan CQ, Lin LT, Du SQ, et al. (Dec 2015).  Acupuncture ameliorates cognitive impairment and hippocampus neuronal loss in experimental vascular dementia through Nrf2-mediated antioxidant response. Free Radical Biology & Medicine. 89:1077-84. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2015.10.426. Epub 2015 Nov 9.
  4. Benner S, Benner K (Sep 2010). Improved performance in endurance sports through acupuncture.  Sportverletz Sportschaden. 2010 Sep;24(3):140-3. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1245406.