Ease sore muscles, relieve pain, and recover faster with these Chinese treatments
The high of going all-out during a workout and the results you see make you feel amazing—the achy or tight muscles that can also result? Not so much. And while foam rolling, heating and icing, and pain relievers can all help, sometimes modern cures aren't enough.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has been used for thousands of years to treat pretty much any ailment—and some of the remedies may help boost your fitness, TCM experts say. Here's the scoop on six treatments for active women.
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You can boost flexibility—key for improving range of motion so you can get the most out of your workouts—without stretching or yoga.
During gua sha, a practitioner lubricates the body with oils and then uses a round-edged instrument such as a Chinese soup spoon, a blunt bottle cap, or even an animal bone to firmly scrape the skin with repeated strokes. The treatment can be soothing or quite aggressive depending on the person performing it and intensity of the desired treatment; either way it results in small red or purple spots called “sha,” which are actually subcutaneous blemishing, bruising, or broken capillaries based on how much pressure is used, and may take several days to weeks to disappear.
While generally performed over certain energy spots or “meridians” over the entire body, gua sha can be used to treat specific areas as well. In addition to increasing flexibility, it can help relieve muscle tension and stiffness from a hard workout, says Lisa Alvarez, co-founder of Healing Foundations, an Oriental medicine practice. She adds that it also helps with other conditions caused by tight or sore muscles such as TMJ and tension headaches.
Your workout is only as good as your recovery, as muscles grow when you’re resting. You may be able to speed up all of this with acupressure, the needle-less cousin of acupuncture.
"Using fingers or a tool to apply firm pressure to energy points of the body balances circulation and stimulates the body’s natural healing abilities,” Alvarez says. Each spot is thought to correspond with specific ailments, injuries, or pain, so pressing somewhere on your foot may in fact help with tight hamstrings.
Acupressure is so simple you can treat yourself, Alvarez says, and get some immediate relief instead of waiting for an appointment. One of her favorite points for athletes is the large intestine 4 acupoint found on the hand between the thumb and forefinger. “Applying pressure to this area is great for relieving any type of pain in the low back, whether it’s from deadlifts or PMS,” she says.
Sometimes you push a little too hard or stretch a little too far, and while there's no break or sprain, something’s most definitely out of whack. If you can handle the intensity, Active Release Technique (ART) may help.
During a session, the therapist manipulates muscles and other soft tissues, and moves or leads the patient through specified movements. This all separates scar tissue from the underlying muscle, which helps reestablish proper, healthy mechanical functioning and improves flexibility, says Craig Thomas, a massage therapist and acupuncturist. In order to relax patients and open up the body to maximize the benefits, some practitioners also incorporate shiatsu, a Japanese form of acupressure, and Thai massage, wherein they user their body weight—often leaning against or even sitting on the client—to pull and push.
This is perfect for treating the overuse injuries lifelong athletes often incur, Thomas says, because it not only fixes the immediate source of the pain but also corrects the underlying structural problems that allowed the injury to happen in the first place.
A massage can be super relaxing and relieve sore muscles—if you're not self-conscious about lying naked underneath just a sheet. But the Japanese have a solution for the shy: Reiki is a form of touch therapy based on the belief that energy can be channeled through the practitioner’s hands to heal the spirit of the patient, which promotes deep relaxation, revitalizes, and resets the body’s energy field, Alvarez says.
While you lie fully clothed on a massage table, the reiki practitioner places their hands on or slightly above areas on the front and back of the body, most often where illness or pain is felt. In Western versions of reiki, practitioners usually focus on the seven chakras that run from the crown of the head to the end of the spine, while in traditional Japanese reiki, the focus is on the energy or balance meridians, which are found over the whole body.
Reiki is often used in conjunction with other treatments such as acupuncture to “provide a deeper healing and rejuvenating experience," Alvarez says. She adds that its many fitness benefits include overall relaxation, pain management, reduction of soreness, and even aiding more Western therapies such as physical rehab by helping the person relax and remain open.
The mind is a powerful tool, but as anyone who's gobbled a chocolate doughnut while on a diet can confirm, getting it to work for you and not against you can be half the battle when it comes to making healthier choices. One way to help rule your thoughts is emotional freedom techniques (EFT), a method based off of acupuncture, neuro-linguistic programming (a behavior modification technique), energy medicine, and Thought Field Therapy (a psychological technique that uses tapping on certain meridians).
“The cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body’s energy system,” says Gary Craig, the founder of one popular style of EFT. Whereas treatments such as acupuncture are primarily focused on physical ailments, EFT focuses on emotional issues and involves performing a prescribed series of tapping or pressing on acupressure or meridian points on the body while repeating a mantra. Sometimes other steps are involved such as counting backward, singing a song, or moving the eyes in specified ways, as instructed by the therapist.
As it’s designed to complement other types of Eastern methodologies, simple to learn and perform, and doesn’t require any special tools or equipment, EFT can work for almost everyone, Craig says, to enhance willpower and focus to help you stay on course with your healthy living goals.
When you’re struggling to eke out that last squat, pollution is likely one of the last things on your mind. However, according to Alvarez, air quality actually impacts your workout because internal and external toxins accumulate in the body over time and can significantly affect your muscle endurance.
To release this toxic buildup, she recommends cupping, a treatment where 1- to 3-inch glass or plastic cups are placed strategically over your body. The practitioner creates a vacuum in the cup by briefly holding a lit cotton ball underneath it or using a hot water bath, rubber ball, or other mechanism, and then lays the cup mouth-side down on the body. The slight vacuum is said to extract toxins by increasing blood flow to the muscle and tissue underneath, thereby helping the body cleanse itself, reduce inflammation, and stimulate healing. Alvarez says it’s like a “reverse” massage: “Instead of pushing the muscles into the body to get them to relax, suction is used to gently pull the muscle tissue upward to help it release.”
Cupping is often used for athletes to treat sore muscles, but it can also help with injuries and pain, including strained shoulders. Alvarez says many of her clients see results both in their comfort level and in the gym in just one session.