Essential oils have long been used by athletic trainers and sports massage therapists to support the health and performance of their athletes. Aromatherapy massage is used both pre-and post workout and competition, to improve performance, speed recovery, and lessen chance of injury. Many ointments and lotions for sore muscles include essential oils and essential oil extracts (e.g. ‘Tiger Balm’, ‘Ben Gay’, etc). Modern medical aromatherapy literature describes the use of oils to even speed the healing of both chronic and acute injuries commonly seen in sport. Here is an overview of the many ways to use essential oils to keep any athlete interested in natural health and fitness performing their best.
Essential oils can promote the health and fitness of athletes in many ways, the most common being the pre- and post- exercise (or competition) massage. Long used by top athletes around the world, sports massage with essential oils plays an important part in warming up the muscles before exertion and removing lactic acid (thereby speeding recovery) after a hard effort. Massage formulas often these essential oils – Eucalyptus, for invigoration, circulation and opening airways; Lavender, with anti-inflammatory effects, relieves pain, relaxes spasms, and brings mental calm without sedation; Rosemary relieves pain, stimulates the mind and body, and has a warming effect on the muscles; Juniper Berry, used in the post-exercise formula, detoxifies and helps eliminate lactic acid from muscles; and Sweet Marjoram which helps relieve cramping in over-exerted muscles.
Blending your own massage formulas for pre and post exercise massages is simple – just between 10 and 30 drops total essential oils to each ounce of carrier oil (Sweet Almond, Grapeseed and Hazelnut are good choices). Generally, the more essential oil in a blend, the more stimulating it will be; lower concentrations of essential oil will be more relaxing. For pre-exercise, to warm and loosen the muscles, open the airways and awaken the mind, try eight drops Rosemary, four drops lavender and four drops Eucalyptus essential oils to each ounce of carrier oil Peppermint can be used in place of the Lavender if you’re really looking to ‘get going’ – though if you’re prone to anxiety before strenuous efforts, stick with the Lavender. Use light, quick invigorating massage strokes. For post-exercise, a little deeper massage can be performed with longer strokes toward the heart – this will assist removal of lactic acid and other metabolic waste products. Try eight drops Lavender, four drops Juniper Berry and four drops Sweet Marjoram, or, when the muscles are really over-exerted, try eight drops Eucalyptus, eight drops Peppermint and eight drops Ginger essential oil.
Aromatherapy oils can be used during pre and post exercise baths and showers as well, using the same oils and blends mentioned above. Be sure to add any oils to the bathwater after the bath is drawn so they do not evaporate before you get in. Before showers, essential oils can be applied undiluted to the body; this is particularly advised post-exertion to support the elimination of metabolic wastes. One drop each of Rosemary, Lemon, Eucalyptus and Peppermint essential oils can be ideal for this purpose. After a shower or bath is an excellent time to apply a massage blend to the entire body – the pores are open and the skin is clean, enhancing absorption. Choose a stimulating or relaxing blend depending on your condition.
Essential oils’ medicinal value goes beyond just warm up and cool down rubs. In many sports, stronger healing properties are often needed due to cuts and scrapes, bruises, twists and sprains. Essential oils can powerful healers of skin, muscle and connective tissue. Many oils are known to have strong anti-inflammatory action, and contain certain molecules which signal the regeneration of tissue. And, of course, there’s the stress-relieving ‘aromatherapy’ aspect, which further enhances the healing process.
To treat bruises and strains, there is no match for the synergistic molecules making up Helichrysum essential oil. Helichrysum (also known as Everlasting oil), is touted by Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D.: “Used for bruises, sprains, and twisted ankles – usually accompanied by swelling and subsequent hemorrhages – this oil proves to be practically a wonder cure.” Keeping a small bottle on hand is wise, as with most treatments involving swelling, quick application provides the best results. In cases of bruises, twists strains or strains, apply a thin film of the oil directly to the affected area immediately, then apply frequently as a ten percent dilution in any carrier oil until healed (the oil will help with serious injuries, but is not a substitute for proper medical attention if needed). A blend of Helichrysum and Jojoba can also be used for chronic injuries such as tendonitis – simply massage a small amount into the affected area a few times a day.
Active athletes and fitness buffs will often incur minor cuts and abrasions. Essential oils are an excellent choice for caring for such wounds due to their antiseptic and soothing effects. A 50/50 blend of Tea Tree and Lavender is a wonderful, all-around skin healer. The Tea Tree prevents infection while the Lavender sooths the area. Apply directly to cuts and scrapes after the wound has been properly cleansed. If this is too strong a blend for the younger ones, simply apply a drop or two to the gauze portion of a band-aid and cover the wound for the same effect. The ratio of Lavender to Tea Tree can also be increased for an even more soothing result.
Other than the direct sports-related uses of essential oils, the overall health and fitness of any athlete should be supported for top performance. During periods of especially strenuous training or competition, athletes may be particularly susceptible to infectious illnesses – colds, flu and the like. Diffusing Eucalyptus, Thyme, Tea Tree and/or Lemon in your home can reduce the chance of illness, or the spread of colds. Niaouli essential oil, a relative of Eucalyptus, is also an excellent oil for supporting the immune system. The oil is recommended to be applied neat all over the body after showers for best absorption and effect (use 10-20 drops). A strong immune system goes a long way to keeping an athlete happy and in top form.
This is a brief overview of many common applications of aromatherapy for supporting the health, fitness and performance of any athlete. There are many variations of the essential oils suggested – if one oil is found offensive, too stimulating, etc., try another, as this is usually the body’s natural way saying the timing of a particular oil is not right, or the oil is not compatible with the individual’s chemistry at the moment. With a little research and experimentation, an effective and rewarding combination of essential oils can enhance nearly any athletes health, fitness and competition endeavors.
Misty Rae Cech, ND is a degreed naturopath with a professional practice in Boulder, Colorado. She is also the owner of Ananda Aromatherapy, a source for essential oils and aromatherapy information.