Traditional Chinese Medicine for Sports Performance

By Sofie Ringsten /

Traditional Chinese Medicine for Sports Performance

As a former elite wrestler, avid ultra-runner and nowadays surf skater and stand-up paddleboarder, I recognize the need to keep my body in the best possible shape for peak performance.  As a practicing Acupuncturist (and yoga teacher), I’ve come to appreciate the role that Traditional Chinese Medicine methodology plays in the pursuit of my physical ambitions.  The benefits have been incredible. 

But much like many things in the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, they are not without the need to embrace certain principles that can be quite complicated.  The connection between Traditional Chinese Medicine and athletic performance requires an understanding of the role one’s organ systems play in this overall mix.  From recovering from sports related injuries (which I discuss in more detail here), to joint support for running performance, we need to take a deeper look inside to explore how one's organs impact your joints, ligaments and tendons. 

cupping for athletes

Viewing Movement Through the Lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine

These days, I view physical movement, injuries, health, and life in general through the lens of Chinese medicine. Obviously, it wasn’t always like that, since there's a before and after in my life when Chinese medicine comes to this practice. I didn’t grow up with it. I did grow up with sports though, going into competitive wrestling at the age of 9. And how sports performance and injuries were treated during my elite years, is nothing like how I treat injuries today through Chinese sports medicine. 

The overall role that Chinese medicine can have on sports is well beyond the scope of one article - the benefits are endless. Instead, I've nailed it down to a few things I believe every athlete should know. And based on my work with teaching yin yoga for athletes and elite cops, plus training yoga teachers in how to teach yin yoga for athletes, as well as treating clients with Chinese medicine, I've learned that simplicity is key. 

Our body parts and tissues depend on the health of our organs – and vice versa

There's no shortage of information for an athlete when it comes to incorporating Traditional Chinese Medicine in both preventative ways, as well as when it comes to healing injuries. Both aspects are equally important, because how well we heal from injuries has very much to do with the health of our internal organs. 

athlete swimming

And although western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine share similar views on the organs when it comes to the medical-physiological functions, Traditional Chinese Medicine delves deeper and looks at the energetic roles of each organ and functions, within a holistic integrated system that's incomprehensible to western biomedicine.

While understanding the pathology and diagnostic parts of Traditional Chinese Medicine takes as many years as studying western medicine, having a simple understanding of the importance of how our bones, ligaments and muscles are governed by different organs, is a game changer. 

Organizing the Organ Systems According to Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, our internal organs are divided into two major categories.  These are the five "Zang" organs:

  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Spleen
  • Lung
  • Kidney

And the six "Fu" organs:

  • Gallbladder
  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine
  • Urinary bladder
  • "Triple Energizer" (a Chinese Medicine concept)

Each organ governs energy channels which distribute Qi (energy) and connects all parts of the body to one. No system works alone  - They all connect internally, as well as externally. One organ controls one body part, but is dependent on all the other organs and parts to function well, working as a holistic system.

running

Issues with Running?  Check-In with Your Spleen

Each organ has a form of relationship system that includes a correlation between the organ and body parts. For example, the stomach and spleen have a direct influence on the health of our muscles, since the muscles rely on the functions of the stomach and spleen to both transform food and drink to Qi and blood, and transport it to the muscles, to nourish the muscles with Qi and blood.

For example, sometimes athletes say that it feels like the muscles aren’t “responding.” This could be directly related to the status of the spleen, which for different reasons could be in a “deficiency mode” because of overthinking, overworking, eating too much sugar, or drinking cold drinks. The spleen hates cold food and drinks since it requires it to work extremely hard than it does when the food and drinks are warm. 

Spleen deficiency among athletes is very common.

One way to detect symptoms of spleen deficiency is to notice if you have teeth marks on the edges of your tongue. If so, seek an Acupuncturist for assistance, and check out this article where I discuss my favorite Chinese herbal formula for better joint health.

healthy joints

The Role of Your Liver for Healthy Joint and Tendons

When it comes to the health of the joints, tendons and ligaments, the organ in control is the liver. The liver stores blood, and in Chinese medicine the liver is said to control the overall Qi flow of the body. The liver and its Qi and blood can easily get prone to stagnation due to mental and emotional stress.  The consequence of this is that the liver can´t control the flow of energy throughout the body, making sure that the joints, tendons, and ligaments work smoothly.

Liver Qi stagnation may manifest itself as stiff joints and an overall sense of stiffness and can often lead to headaches. 

To Strengthen Your Bones, Strengthen Your Kidneys

The third organ of focus is the kidneys. Your kidneys have a direct link with the wellness of our bones, and in Chinese medicine, it's said that the kidneys govern the bones and are responsible for bone marrow, and bone marrow is responsible for blood production. To strengthen our bones as athletes, we must also think about strengthening our kidneys. 

acupuncture

The cool thing is that Western medicine is catching up on Chinese medicine, with discoveries that erythropoietin, a hormone produced in the kidneys, stimulates bone marrow to produce blood cells. And scientists who study mood disorders and research around hypertension both focus on the receptors of neurotransmitter serotonin. In Chinese medicine, both conditions result from energetic dysfunction of the liver. 

Western medicine is Catching up with the Traditional Chinese Medicine's view of the body, and it's long history of treating injured warriors a natural way.

In essence, what you might understand from this very simplified explanation of organs in Chinese medicine is that our health and healing is depending on our mental and emotional health, as well as the status of our organs, and the movement of Qi and blood. The number one lesson when it comes to treating injuries in Chinese medicine, and to live healthy in general, is to not disrupt the movement of Qi, blood, and fluids. 

Better Running Requires Smoother Qi, Fluids and Blood

When thinking about movement, most athletes think about the act of moving the body in activities such as running, stretching, bending and more. But for every steps forward in running, an inner movement of Qi, fluids, and blood, is required. If the flow of Qi becomes obstructed, the body cannot perform its functions.

Blood is the liquid life force of the body, and its key is nourishment. Qi gives rise to blood, which nourishes the organs that produce more Qi. Fluids refers to the water-like fluids that nourishes the skin and muscles, like sweat, and the liquids that lubricate organs, the brain and spinal cord.  All these inner movements are essential for health in general, and to stay mobile and injury free as athletes.

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A practitioner of Yin Yoga and acupuncture, and a pioneer of SUP Yoga, Sofie Ringsten's path has also led her through elite athlete status in the martial arts, twelve years as a street cop, a stint of ultra-marathoning, surfing, and motherhood. Her journey inspired a keen interest in resolving pain, whether physical or emotional. Sofie splits her time between Sweden and the Maldives. You can learn more about Sofie at sofieringsten.com.

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