• Paolo Amat

Does cupping work for endurance athletes?

It's safe to say that this ancient healing practice is leaving it's mark on endurance sports.

During the 2016 Olympics, Michael Phelps showed up with large purple dots over his body which raised a lot of eyebrows (Susan Locke, 2019). Some questioned whether this was the result of a bar brawl? Or was it an alternative type of medicine?

Four years on, just about everyone now knows what those purple dots resulted from. It's clear that the ancient therapy of cupping has come a long way in the eyes of the general public. This is all thanks to devotees like Phelps, American NBA star Draymond Green and the USA women's gymnastics team.

In her article, Locke states that '…. make no mistake – cupping isn't just a new fad'. Furthermore, 'Humanity has utilised these cupping modalities for thousands of years throughout history, trend or not' stated Jason Miller, former bodywork therapist for the USA Track and Field team and current Educator for the International Cupping Therapy Association.

Certified cupping practitioners apply specialised glass or plastic cups onto the skin. Using either heat (with glass) or an air pump (plastic cups), suction is created within the cup for between 10 to 30 minutes. The skin is pulled or sucked upwards and away from the underlying muscles. This then allows the circulation of blood into the area under the cup, which promotes muscle health, improves functionality, deposits pathogens and improves the immune response.

Cupping therapy can provide a wealth of benefits for athletes. Locke (2019) stated that 'cupping therapy is extremely beneficial for athletic conditioning and rehabilitation. The negative pressure draws the tissue up into the cup opening up the body, lifting tissue and releasing tension in the structures of the body without the discomfort of force or compression'.

What does this mean? Cupping is a lot like reverse massage – where, with massage, the pressure is downwards, cupping lifts the structures of the body.

Cupping therapy is said to provide relief to athletes experiencing various sport-related injuries; particularly IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, sciatica and frozen shoulder.

So does it really actually work?

The science is still undecided. However, a small study carried out 2012 looked into people with chronic neck pain who received either a cupping treatment regime or training in relaxation techniques. Both groups reported similar reductions in overall pain, although the cupping group had higher scores for overall well-being.

Similar results were found in a study a year later for the use of cupping for professional and amateur athletes. Experts concluded there was insufficient empirical evidence to be sure. However, 'no clear explicit recommendation for or against use of cupping for athletes can be made' (Locke, 2019).

However, by the number of professional athletes showing off their purple cupping dots on social media, it's safe to say there's a lot of people that believe it's a worthy addition to their recovery protocol.

Jason Miller explains the tips for treating with cupping therapy for the first time:

  • Cupping therapy is most commonly applied in massage or acupuncture environments, although they are becoming more popular in physical therapy clinics as well.

  • Make sure you choose a therapist who will explain the principles of the cupping technique. A good therapist will explain the treatment plan, use and varied equipment which create very specfic effects. Miller goes on to say 'cupping as a broad term can encompass several modalities that include, dynamic cupping, massage cupping, needling and cupping, orthopaedic cupping, and bio-magnetic cupping'.

  • 'It's important that you drink extra fluids before and after your cupping sessions. As the cupping increases circulation, hydration is key – it helps with the rising of dysfunctional or stagnated bloods to the surface, when then process through the lymph', Miller suggests.

  • The suction can cause some mild discomfort, but should not be painful. If you do experience pain in any way, notify your therapist immediately.

  • The actual marks cupping therapy leaves are not an indicator of effectiveness, neither is the colour. Some individuals experience marks after a cupping session, while other's won't. The marks are normal and last little as two hours or as long as three weeks.

Want to know more about cupping might help you as an endurance athlete? Contact me to book in for your treatment today!

References :

Susan, L. (2019) Velo News [online]. Available from: https://www.velonews.com/2019/03/training/is-cupping-therapy-a-good-solution-for-endurance-athletes_490138 (Accessed 16 May 2019)

Susan, L. (2019) Triathlete [online]. Available from: https://www.triathlete.com/2019/03/training/is-cupping-therapy-a-good-solution-for-endurance-athletes_361879 (Accessed 16 May 2019

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