Acupuncture: Reversing the Stressful Effects of Running
Needles pinpoint the root cause of pain, imbalances and chronic conditions
By Brett Larner
July 22, 2010
Growing up in North America, like many others, I originally thought of acupuncture as some exotic placebo, questionably effective and a little frightening. My first direct exposure came following a hard marathon in Tochigi, Japan, in November 2006. Looking for a post-race massage, I found that organizers were instead offering complimentary post-race acupuncture treatments. I decided to give it a go and was pleasantly surprised by the experience; a flicker of pain as the needles made contact, a dull pressure as the acupuncturist tapped the needles in position and then the sensations fading to a feeling of relaxation. A year later, I suffered a major injury to my right thigh, which showed no signs of improvement after nearly six months of medical and massage treatments. I turned to acupuncture and after only two-and-a-half months, was back to the point of running one of my fastest half marathons. My thigh injury has never recurred, and acupuncture has become a regular part of my training regimen.
Despite anecdotal evidence such as my own experience, acupuncture remains relatively uncommon as a means of treatment for runners in North America. Whether it is because of its invasive nature or lack of rigorous scientific methodology, acupuncture’s benefits compared to massage, chiropractic and other forms of alternative treatment are little known in the West. In Japan, acupuncture is as common as massage in treating the ailments that afflict marathoners. Idaten, a Tokyo clinic that offers acupuncture alongside massage and physical therapy, treats the country’s best professional and university runners as well as amateurs. “Roughly 60-70% of our clients are runners,” says the clinic’s director, Jiro Konno. “Many of the elite runners get acupuncture treatments twice a week, but even the amateur runners we treat come in once a week.”
In terms of injury recovery, the point at which most people seek physical treatment, “Acupuncture is able to promote increased blood flow to an area and stimulate healing—similar to a histamine response—from the slight irritation that the needles produce,” says Stram. “Tight muscular restrictions can be released, which will allow the body to work on healing itself instead of getting constantly restrained by poor patterns of movement caused by pain or restriction.”
But more than recovery from injury, acupuncture’s greatest potential may come in injury prevention. According to Stram, “Running and training hard, whether it is fast acceleration sprints or long distance, takes a toll on the body. This is especially true of problem areas such as the back, hips and legs, which are most affected by running. Acupuncture needles can get directly to deep muscle bands to maximize the treatment effect. For example, when a deep muscle of the hip is treated directly, it will be more susceptible to stretching and can relax more. There is subsequently less stress on the joint, and the muscle has more potential to fire and contract without fear of spraining muscles or tearing ligaments.”
Kawaguchi agrees. “Regular treatment can help prevent problems through improving muscle fiber mobility,” he says. For these reasons, Konno recommends regular treatment—two or three times a month, or at most once a week for amateur runners—as a key component of maintenance and injury prevention.
Overcoming the fear of being stuck full of needles is one of the main obstacles to trying acupuncture, but Konno compares it to going to the dentist. “There’s no need to be afraid,” he says. “Start easy, and ask the acupuncturist to use light needles. When you are accustomed to the sensation, you can move up to a more thorough treatment.”