Enhancing Winter Athletic Performance Using Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine dates back to four thousand years ago, a time when people based their understanding of their health on what they knew best…. how the processes of nature worked.  They observed how natural balance was restored over time to areas devastated by fires, floods, droughts, and other environmental processes.   They applied their understanding of these natural changes to their own bodies and a beautifully effective system of medicine began……

Winter  is a  time of hibernation and solitude, when Yin energy naturally dominates.   It provides an  opportunity to examine our focus and inner strength.   Athletes who reside in  high altitude mountain communities present an interesting dichotomy of energy during the winter months.  Instead of hibernating they often seem to be found exhibiting their Yang nature by blasting through powder light snow drifts, gracefully navigating endless mogel fields, leaping skyward off jumps, and rhythmically skating through the trees…….ALWAYS MOVING!   Finding stillness in movement, discovering  one’s center,  encountering Yin within Yang are the moments we are seeking in the mountains in order to understand the Yin nature of the winter and within ourselves.    As everything in Chinese Medicine, enhancing athletic performance is about finding an energetic and physical balance – moving what is stuck, nourishing what is weak, and dispersing what is excessive.  Chinese Medicine provides an exceptionally useful and creative  realm within which to become stronger,  more motivated, and more focused.

Chinese Medicine offers several very effective methods with which to enhance athletic performance including, acupuncture, herbs, nutrition, and moxibustion.   These methods may be used alone or in combination depending on a patients overall health and personal goals.  .  Acupuncture is the more familiar technique and involves the placement of sterile needles into acupuncture points along pathways called meridians which travel through the body.  Each patient is individually evaluated and diagnosed according to which factors, such as Yin, Yang, and  Qi (or energy), might be out of balance.  Then an appropriate treatment plan is developed and  put into action!

The condition of the YIN energy in the body helps determine one’s motivation and focus, and helps to define the connection of  an athlete with their environment.   Yin energy is strongly reflected in the female nature, and is calm, cool,  and meditative.  Emotionally it is what keeps an athlete focused and level-headed during competition.  Physically, it includes the fluids in the body that are required to  keep the  tendons, ligaments, muscles, and bones  strong.    Tendonitis, chronic or repetitive injuries, and joint pain may indicate a deficiency in Yin energy.   Additional symptoms of Yin deficiency include hot flashes, night sweats, heart palpitations, insomnia, dry skin and hair, and excessive thirst or dehydration.  Other related symptoms often seen in female athletes include dizziness, anemia, scanty or no menstrual periods, spots in the field of vision, a pale complexion, fatigue, infertility, and depression.  An excessively active lifestyle may deplete an athlete’s Yin and make it challenging to reach one’s peak performance.

In Chinese Medicine the YANG energy is strongly reflected in the male nature.  It includes the outwardly directed power, strength, and movement exhibited by athletes.   Yang energy is active and warm in nature and is required to maintain one’s endurance whether skiing with friends for an afternoon or maintaining a high level of performance during a competitive hockey game.   Pain in the low back, knees, and other joints may indicate a Yang deficient condition especially if accompanied by an overall sensation of cold in the body.  General symptoms of Yang deficiency include cold hands and feet, loose stools or diarrhea, a pale complexion, edema, poor appetite, decreased libido, desire for warm drinks, frequent urination, and fatigue.  One method that effectively addresses Yang deficiency is moxibustion, where an herb called mugwort  is used to warm acupuncture points.  Moxibustion not only strengthens the Yang, but also encourages the free flow of Qi along the meridians.

The free flow of QI or energy is essential to one’s athletic performance, and may feel like what is referred to as a “runner’s high” or simply that feeling that one is in synch with their body and the environment.   When the flow of Qi is blocked or stagnant, healthy energy is inaccessible to the rest of the body.   There are several reasons for this lack of flow in the body.  One common reason is stress, which is often due to overwork and never enough time in the day to go out and play!  Physical injury, chronic or acute pain, and fatigue are additional causes of a lack of free flowing Qi.  Often these reasons occur simultaneously.   When stress  is the main problem  the blockage in the body can be similar to pressure building up behind a dam.  Emotions seen  when energy is stagnant  include irritability, anger outbursts, mood swings, and anxiety.   Physical symptoms include migraine headaches, indigestion, painful periods, tinnitus, a bitter taste in the mouth, and discomfort under the ribcage.    Regular exercise, acupuncture treatments, herbal prescriptions, and proper nutrition  are all effective methods to stimulate energy flow.

Chinese herbs, which can  provide that competitive edge that many athletes are seeking,  should be  prepared  in carefully selected combinations by a qualified herbalist.  Formulas are determined based on each individual patient’s symptoms and goals.  Herbal formulas are typically taken two or three times a day  and are available in different forms including tablets, capsules, powders, or liquids.  Herbs that nourish the Yin and Yang, and the Qi are all appropriate to include in formulas that enhance athletic performance.  Herbal linaments  may also be applied topically to injured areas.

Healthy nutrition is an essential component to achieving one’s goals as well.  As a practicioner, I find that in general, high altitude athletes have healthy appetites, but do not eat quite enough.    So I would encourage athletes to make some simple changes and additions to their diets.   In today’s world of low carbohydrate diets, I believe that a balanced diet of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates is the healthiest way to go for energy, endurance, decreased recovery time, and long-term health.   As in the discussion on herbs, foods that nourish the Yin and Yang, and the Qi are all important to include in one’s diet.  Your  practicioner can help you choose specific foods depending on your individual needs.

As a health care practicioner, striving to maintain her own athletic performance,  I would encourage those interested in achieving their athletic goals, no matter how large or small they may be, to try to connect to and to nourish your bodies more.  To not only exercise regularly, but also to take the time to find that place of inner stillness, of  focus, of intent, of  YIN.