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Five Eastern Practices to Boost Your Western Workout

Don't worry—warming up to Eastern medicine won’t make you a monk. These treatments can give you a boost whether you’re running a marathon or rehabbing a muscle you messed up in the gym.
Five Eastern Practices to Boost Your Western Workout

You know Oriental medicine—it’s all hippies, healing crystals, and a medicine man your girlfriend told you about when she was reading Eat, Pray, Love. Hate to break it to you, but you’re a little off base. We were in the dark, too, until we learned about what practices like acupuncture, moxibustion, and cupping can do to make our everyday workouts better.

Turns out, there’s a new age-y remedy for everything from preventing injuries to speeding up recovery to boosting endurance, and runners, golfers, and run-of-the-mill gym rats are among the holistic health center clientele lining up to receive these treatments. Even the New York Mets and other MLB teams are jumping on the bandwagon.

But don’t worry if your relationship with acupuncture ends at a mental picture of somebody getting pricked like a human voodoo doll. We asked Lisa Alvarez, a licensed and board certified acupuncturist and master level Reiki practitioner at Healing Foundations in Chicago, to walk us through five holistic therapies that can make you a better athlete.

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If you’re limping around with a pulled muscle, the thought of getting pricked with dozens of tiny needles doesn’t sound pleasant, but hear us out on this one. In Chinese medicine, pain is a sign that a blockage—of blood, fluid or energy (chi)—is throwing off balance in the body. “When everything is balanced, circulation moves in an ordered manner,” says Alvarez. “And when you experience pain or stress, it’s a sign that circulation is impeded.” To get things moving in the right direction, carefully placed needles increase the flow of blood, fluid, and chi to areas of the body where there’s discomfort.

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Needles deliver faster, longer-lasting results, but they’re not for everyone. If you’ve got a squeamish side but still want to give acupuncture a go, Teishin therapy is a good place to start. Instead of needles, a pointy stone probe (we promise, it's less grusome than it sounds) is used to apply pressure to acupuncture points without breaking the skin. Acupressure is another form of needleless acupuncture, but because a therapist has to apply so much force, it’s easily more painful than the real deal.

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If regular post-workout stretching and yoga classes aren’t cutting it, Gu Sha can loosen up tight muscles, increase flexibility, and improve range of motion. How it works: skin is lubricated with oil before strokes of pressure are applied to the body. The process enhances circulation, reduces pain, and is especially good for anybody experiencing heat or inflammation around overworked muscles, says Alvarez.

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Struggling to squeeze in that last rep? An accumulation of toxins might be holding you back. But extracting these pollutants from your body can boost endurance. Just like the name implies, tiny cups are placed at various points from head to toe. The cups create small vacuums that naturally draw out impurities.

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Turning up the heat is an important part of the post-workout cool-down process when you give a moxibustion a shot. It’s a form of heat therapy where an herb called mugwort is burned near or on specific acupoints. The results? Less pain and a faster healing process.

Now that you're a little less in-the-dark about alternative medicine, follow these tips to get started:

Not sure which treatment would work best for you? Talk to a pro. He or she will do a full analysis of your medical history and lifestyle to determine which therapy or combination of therapies can best address what’s throwing off your game. Just make sure your practitioner is a licensed acupuncturist. How you can tell: look for “LAc” in their title. While many doctors are able to perform acupuncture, they don't have the same schooling or training hours under their belt.

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“Acupuncture is like going to the gym. You can’t go once and say ‘I’m in shape’,” says Alvarez. “It requires a commitment and builds over time. The longer you do it, the longer the results will last and the less you’ll need to come in.” If you’re rehabbing an injury, you’ll go frequently (one to two times a week) at first and then taper off as your healing progresses. If you’re using alternative medicine to boost your race-day performance, “the best thing to do is to have a couple of weekly treatments before the event and then come in right after the event,” says Alvarez.

The cost of acupuncture and other Eastern therapies varies depending on where you live; alternative medicine will set you back more in cities than in suburbs or rural areas. Expect to pay $60 to $120 per private session. To cut down on costs, look for group sessions, where multiple people receive different treatments in the same room, which run $25 to $50 per appointment.

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Depending on the severity of your sports injury, an acupuncturist won’t always be your first and final stop. If you’re experiencing a ton of swelling and pain, see your regular doc for an x-ray. Broken bones or torn muscles require the attention of an MD, who can set the injury and/or rule out surgery. 

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