The top five topicals for hard-training athletes (martial artists, kickboxers, CrossFit enthusiasts)
Basically you have two kinds of “remedies” with ancient roots in martial artists but so helpful for anyone who works out and has aches or pains.
External, to use topically on a joint, muscle or area that hurts, aches or needs TLC
Internal, to take internally, like a liquid, decoction, tablet or capsule.
(Later, we’re going to get more detailed about what to use and how to use these, distinguishing between recent injuries, chronic pain, maintaining health, etc. But for now, here are the simple basics.)
There are multiple types of external remedies, and for each type there are different brands and formulations of ingredients.
Let’s break that down, starting with all the TYPES of external remedies:
- Soaks and compresses
#1: Liniments are widely available, especially those tailored to martial arts. However, I do have a caveat with liniments: for them to really help, you have to apply them frequently. A liniment is a combination of herbs soaked in alcohol for weeks to months, then strained. Alcohol excels at extracting the medicinal compounds (aka the good stuff) from the herbs, but dries quickly when applied. Using some tricks when applying, like soaking some gauze in the liniment then wrapping to allow it time to soak in.
Give it a try: Plum Dragon’s Bruise Juice for bruises and minor aches and pains from a hard workout or minor injury (I recently used mine for an ice tubing bruise…not just for athletics!)
Plum Dragon also has two awesome Dit da jow liniments for injuries and pain. Don’t be intimidated by a name like Dit da jow. That’s just Pinyin, or Chinese written in our alphabet, for a ‘hit and fall’ remedy.
#2: Oils are my favorite. Especially in drier climates and seasons, oils stay on the skin longer, giving more time for absorption. They can also be used in conjunction with massage, cupping, gua sha and acupressure. Like liniments, herbal oils are simply oil and herbs, soaked together and strained, but just use one or a combination of oils instead of alcohol.
Give it a try: My favorite oil is Mahanarayan oil, a blend of a bajillion (okay not a bajillion, but enough herbs the ingredient list reads like a short story) that make it an amazing all-around oil to have for aches, pains and regular massage on those creaky or weak-feeling joints. Not a Chinese formula, it comes from Ayurveda, the traditional medicine system of India. (Fun fact–southern India also has an ancient martial arts tradition.) It looks hard to pronounce, but just look at it syllable by syllable: mah-hah-nah- rai- yun.
I use Mahanarayan oil on my knees regularly because it also contains tonic herbs that help build strength while helping inflammation. For me, it helps keep me from having flare-ups of runner’s knee.
A second oil from an excellent US company is Dragon’s Dream Oil by Herbalist & Alchemist. With fewer ingredients, it is a more moving oil that includes peppermint, ginger and wintergreen.
#3: Balms are just thicker versions of oils. You make an oil into a balm by adding a thickener like beeswax, making it more solid. Like the famous Tiger Balm, it comes in tins or smaller glass containers. They are easier to travel with than oils.
Give it a try: If you haven’t tried Tiger Balm, it’s the most popular balm and beloved among many, athletes and non-athletes alike. Produced in Singapore, you’ll hear fun stories of it being used for anything and everything.
#4: Plasters come in two types. One is like a fragrant band-aid that at least has menthol and camphor, but better ones include herbal ingredients as well. It might also be called a ‘patch’. Menthol and camphor increase circulation and give symptom relief and increase circulation in the area, but herbal ingredients go even further in treating the underlying reason for aches or pains.
The second type of plaster is called a wet plaster, although it’s more gooey than wet. These are herbal mixes that can be spread over an area of pain or discomfort, then covered, wrapped and allowed to soak in. These are stronger than the band-aid type plasters, but messier. My favorite way to use them is to find a shirt you don’t mind potentially getting stained (like turmeric, they can discolor skin and clothing), apply a thick coating over the area of pain or injury, put a layer of gauze and then wrap with an ace bandage or similar. Do this after work or late afternoon, and let it soak overnight.
A success story I had with wet plasters was when my mother-in-law came to visit from India. If you’ve ever had family from another country travel to the US, you’ll know that travel medical insurance is crazy expensive and not always easy to deal with. My mother-in-law fell and injured her shoulder, and while it was painful it was just muscular injury, nothing broken. I wrapped her shoulder in wet plasters ‘round the clock for a week, at which point she had zero pain and full ROM. I was worried because rotator cuff tears and other shoulder injuries can be persistent and painful, and I was glad she fully recovered.
Give it a try: For band-aid type plasters, Tiger Balm has plasters for application options. My favorite is called Hua Tou plasters from a company not based in the US, and I always advise caution with Chinese and Asian companies because their regulations can be different from ours. One reason for caution is that these companies often combine pharmaceuticals with herbs, and may or not be fully listed in the ingredients. Hua Tou is a menthol/camphor plus herbs plaster but it also has small amounts of salicylates, like aspirin.
Wet plasters are a little harder to find, and you may need to get them through an herbalist or acupuncturist. The best brand out there is Spring Wind, with an extensive line designed for all stages and types of injury.
#5: Soaks and compresses. These two take the herbs in their whole form (leaves, roots, etc), boils them in water to make a decoction, and uses it for either soaking the area (hand, foot, elbow) in a small tub of the herbal decoction or applying a cloth soaked in that liquid to an area harder to soak (shoulder, hip).. Some companies like Spring Wind sell the herbs neatly sewn in cotton cloth to be decocted, making a neat, convenient and easy-to-use product. .
I have tricky knees that can flare and give me grief, so often I make a soaking herbal decoction and soak my (clean) foot in it while using a cloth to apply the decoction to my knee, soaking it in the herbs as well. Your feet and ankles are amazing. You can do a lot with ‘just’ a foot! For upper body injuries you can also soak the hands. People are often surprised to come in for acupuncture and realize so much of the treatment can take place from the elbow down and the knee down.
Give it a try: Spring Wind has amazing options, but by far the best is to see an herbalist and get an herbal formula for soaking designed just for you.
Now that you’ve got the basics of what’s out there, we’ll explore further when and how to use these to help with chronic or recent injuries and even for prehab (preventing injuries).