Acupuncture for Runners

By Emily Bartha, LAc, MSAOM /

Acupuncture for Runners

We're a nation of runners, which like many things, means we're always on the go and always prone to injury.  Portland, Oregon-based Acupuncturist Emily Bartha, LAc, MSAOM knows a few things about treating running-related injuries, as she pursues a post-graduate degree in Sports Medicine Acupuncture while treating many Portland-based athletes in her clinic, Turning Point Acupuncture.  We've ask her to explain how runners and those with an active lifestyle can incorporate acupuncture into their training routine to proactively avoid injuries.   

How I Treat Runners With Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a highly individualized system of medicine. That said, when a runner comes in for the initial appointment, there are some common things I always examine to inform my treatment. Whether you are coming in to address IT band tightness, knee pain, ankle pain, plantar fasciitis or low back pain, my first step of assessment is always the same - I look to the pelvis and feet.

The pelvis is an area of convergence in the body.  It affects what occurs in the legs and feet below and the thoracic region and shoulders above. Pelvic imbalances are common in the general population due to our sedentary lifestyles. But with athletes, runners in particular, pelvic imbalances and associated muscle imbalances are often exacerbated from the repetitive striking involved in running. A chain of compensation then ensues and is reinforced with every run, sometimes leading to muscle soreness, pain or injury.

running injury

Similar to the pelvis, the feet affect the entire body and are the basis for our patterns of movement. I look at the feet and gait to assess for any deviation, structural issue or abnormal strike pattern. Often, the difference between the two sides is significant and provides me with information about how you may be compensating. In runners I often treat the peroneal, tibialis, and/or gastrocnemius-soleus muscle groups.

Acupuncture provides an amazing tool to balance muscle groups throughout the body.  It can help you avoid injury and recover more quickly when injury occurs.

No matter what your sport, we tend to develop certain muscles more than others. Acupuncture provides an amazing tool to balance muscle groups throughout the body. With runners we often find weakness in the gluteal region and very tight hamstrings. A full orthopedic and postural assessment along with muscle testing can shed light on which areas to address so that a more functional posture and gait can be reinforced with each treatment.

acupuncture needles

Acupuncture Meridians & Fascial Planes

Acupuncture addresses channels throughout the body that conveniently, or perhaps by design, follow the lines of fascial connections, or fascial planes.

For example, the Tai Yang channel starts at the base of the skull and follows the back line of the spinal muscles, legs and feet, closely following what is often referred to as the posterior fascial chain. Addressing fascial planes can create change in posture and gait. 

Nike+ Run Club Coach, Multi-sport Athlete, MD and Acupuncturist Ian Banzon
Nike+ Run Club Coach, Multi-sport Athlete, MD and Acupuncturist Ian Banzon

One of the cool things about acupuncture is that it inherently addresses the entire channel - not just the site of injury. Treating key acupuncture points along a channel can be quite effective at resolving issues at other sites along the same channel.  An example of this is a point at your hamstring muscle or ankle being used to relieve low back pain.

Treating the Injury by Treating The Whole Body

One of the tremendous strengths of Traditional Chinese Medicine is it’s focus on integrating the body as a whole. Pain, weakness or tightness in a particular area is a symptom of a pattern of disharmony throughout the entire system. The function of your organs, immune system, and digestive system, as well as your individual constitution contribute to your overall health and cannot be separated from your musculoskeletal system.

If an injury is addressed but you are still having trouble with insomnia, severe anxiety or digestive upset, you aren’t going to meet your running goals. So in addition to treating the physical manifestation of pain or injury, I will work to address organ and channel imbalance to help improve sleep, hormone function, mood, immunity, digestion and overall well-being.

More Than Just Physical Balance

Traditional Chinese Medicine views physical and emotional health as inseparable. You simply can’t address one without affecting the other. One of the wonderful “side effects” of acupuncture is that it stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system. Patients often leave a treatment feeling a deep sense of calm and clarity. This mental balance and stress relief is highly beneficial when training for a race or working toward a goal.

Beyond Acupuncture: Cupping, Gua Sha & More

Myofascial release in the form of cupping therapy, Gua Sha and Tuina manual therapy is a big part of my treatment style. I use it to encourage postural change and to release bound up tissue and fascial adhesions. I may also send you home with one or two corrective exercises to focus on throughout the week to reinforce the treatment. If needed, I also prescribe herbal medicines or supplements to speed the healing process.

cupping athletes

When to Incorporate Acupuncture into One's Routine

I advise my patients to come in to address any acute pain as soon as possible after the injury occurs. Patents usually see results in 3-6 treatments, depending on the severity of the injury. For chronic issues, more treatments are typically require (6-8 treatments on average).  Once issues of chronic or acute pain are resolved, active runners typically come in once a month for maintenance or two to four times a month during times of heavy training.

Shorter, targeted treatments are a good idea the day before a race. Perhaps the most important time to get treatment is immediately following your race or big training runs to aid in recovery.

Acupuncture works synergistically with other treatment modalities including physical therapy, chiropractic care and massage therapy. I often coordinate care with other healthcare professionals and see great results with this approach. That is the beauty if complementary medicine. I will also check in with your orthopedic specialist or primary care physician if appropriate to make sure you are getting comprehensive care.

Emily is an NCCAOM Board Certified Acupuncturist and Herbalist with a focus on chronic pain, orthopedics and sports medicine. She is recognized as a Top Acupuncturist in Portland by Portland Monthly in 2020. She has over five years of experience working in an integrative healthcare environment — including a sports medicine clinic, an interdisciplinary pain management clinic and a teaching clinic. She is a member of Oregon Ballet Theatre's Allegro Society, acting as the acupuncturist for the ballet company’s dancers.

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