Can acupuncture aid performance?

With every aspect of diet and training taken care of, pro teams are increasingly looking towards alternative therapies for an edge. Can acupuncture really help performance?

This summer we’ve watched Vincenzo Nibali dominate the Tour de France, riding away from his rivals on climbs and cobbles.

Just as Team Sky has done in previous years, Nibali’s Astana team has looked at all aspects of training and recovery to get the best out of him.

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One interesting therapy that Nibali and his Astana team-mates have recently implemented is acupuncture. This involves inserting between six to 10 needles into specific parts of the rider’s legs, feet, hands and head. The needles, usually about an inch long, are then carefully twisted to stimulate these areas.

While massage, compression tights and the correct nutrition are all well known for aiding recovery, acupuncture is not commonly talked about. However it has been used to improve performance in many different sports over the years, including cycling.

After numerous crashes early in the 2011 Tour, Alberto Contador received acupuncture on his injured right knee to help reduce inflammation. Using acupuncture in this manner is a common treatment, as it can relieve muscle and joint pain by reducing inflammation and thus promote healing.

And it’s not just for relieving physical injuries. It can also help to reduce psychological stress and anxiety. In big races like the Tour this can really help to aid performance by improving riders’ outlook and mentality, especially after a tough stage.

Alongside this, acupuncture also improves blood flow, meaning more oxygenated blood gets to muscles and helps remove any toxins built up after a hard day of riding.

The team has been using acupuncture specialist Eddy De Smedt since 2013 alongside their regular doctors, osteopaths and physios. De Smedt visited each of the Astana team twice a day, once before the stage and once after.

With the aim of aiding recovery ready for the next day’s riding and reduce any aches or pains, it’s an attitude not dissimilar to Sky’s marginal gains approach. Nibali explained to Belgian television that Astana has looked for “those little extra details that can help us”.