Acupuncture works to aid recovery and increase performance in a completely different way than yoga. Needles placed in specific spots activate meridians (energy lines) and move energy through the body. Preliminary scientific reviews in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2001 & 2010 suggest that this enhances performance in resistance and endurance sports. Rizzolo explains that Traditional Chinese Medicine can also help with recovery by “filling the gas tank” when it is depleted from vigorous training or competition.
This is why, even after healing her hamstring, Nelson continues to get acupuncture and massage as she works toward the Olympics. “I’ve been running extremely tough courses this season that I normally need a week to recover from. With acupuncture and massage, it takes me only two or three days to recover, so I can train even harder.”
Besides just feeling good, therapeutic massage increases blood flow, feeds tissue with nutrients, removes waste and decreases lactic buildup to help the body perform more economically. And you don’t need to be a professional athlete to benefit from regular massage work. “Massage and yoga are part of my regular training, just like eating well and getting a lot of good sleep,” says Jennifer Kwasniewski, a seasoned amateur athlete who recently made the leap to running ultras.
However, there are limitations to what alternative therapies alone can accomplish. As a result, many practitioners emphasize the need to thoroughly and honestly evaluate patients and collaborate with others. “It’s our responsibility to bring Western and Eastern medicine together to better serve our patients,” says Rizzolo.
Michelle Grainger, an elite cyclist, mountain biker and coach, embraced a conglomeration of treatments to recover after a truck hit her while she was riding her bike. She needed five surgeries and extensive physical therapy, but she also used yoga, acupuncture, massage, Tibetan healing and Feldenkrais. “You name it. I’ve tried it,” she says. “As a 20-year veteran athlete, I did everything it took to train better, to perform better, to recover more quickly and to maximize every single little edge I could come up with. Why wouldn’t I do the same to heal myself?”
While alternative therapies may not be for everyone, for some, like Ilg, they are life changing. He calls his fall from Long’s Peak his greatest blessing. “Without it, I would have missed so many inner lessons. Healing myself holistically has taught me that pain is purification.”
EO’s assistant editor, Chris Kassar is co-founder of Rios Libres.