Originally Published February 16, 2017 | Updated April 27, 2018
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting fine needles into the skin at certain points called acupoints, which, when stimulated, are thought to promote the body’s natural healing processes. Used by more than 3 million Americans each year, this ancient healing art has specific benefits for runners.
Sarah Hammer, L.Ac., a marathoner and acupuncturist in Portland, Ore., says that while most of her runner-patients initially seek treatment for pain or an injury, they often notice, as she did, that acupuncture also improves their overall health—which translates to stronger running. That’s because regardless of the specific ailment, acupuncture seeks to balance and restore energy throughout the body, she explains.
Here are six ways this centuries-old therapy can help you perform your best.
Strengthens Your Immune System
Research shows that during periods of heavy training, your risk of acquiring an upper respiratory tract infection increases. According to the National Cancer Institute, acupuncture may help your body fight off infections by enhancing white blood cell activity. Several acupoints are associated with regulating immunity, but the key is to get treatments before you get sick, such as every two weeks during marathon training, Hammer says.
Corrects Muscle Imbalances
When muscles are imbalanced, they can trigger a chain reaction resulting in muscle, joint and tendon pain, says Matt Callison, L.Ac., a San Diego-based acupuncturist who trademarked Sports Medicine Acupuncture. To correct these imbalances, he inserts needles into motor points as well as specific acupuncture points to release tight segments of myofascial tissues—the membranes that surround and connect your muscles. “When you balance the muscles, you decrease the stress on irritated areas,” Callison says.
Accelerates Healing And Recovery
Clinical studies have amply documented that acupuncture improves blood circulation. “Because of the healing and growth factors in the blood, anything you can do to increase the amount of blood flow to an injured area, the better off it is,” Callison says. Acupuncture is especially helpful for healing tendons and ligaments, he says, which have been shown to have 7 percent less blood flow than muscles.
Protects Against Chronic Stress
Chronic stress undermines performance and wreaks havoc on our health. Recently, a team of Georgetown University researchers showed that acupuncture provides some resilience against chronic stress. In a series of animal studies, they found that acupuncture not only suppressed stress-related hormonal changes, but that the treatment’s effects lasted for four days. “Four days is quite long if you think of the effects of drugs, for example,” Dr. Ladan Eshkevari, who led the study, says. “Most drugs only last hours, not days.”
Recent clinical studies show that acupuncture promotes quality sleep, which runners know is critical to running strong, recovering well and preventing illness. Unfortunately, the CDC reports that nearly 10 percent of Americans suffer from chronic insomnia. “The reasons for poor sleep are different for every person, which is why acupuncture is so effective in treating it,” Hammer explains. “Unlike taking a pill, it gets to the root causes.”
Acupuncture pop-up clinics are part of a growing trend that brings the service to you. “Acupuncture can essentially be done anywhere,” says Hammer, who has treated runners during Hood to Coast, one of the world’s largest and longest relay races. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see more pop-up acu-clinics, like we see chair massages, at the end of races to enhance recovery.”