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 use is pre- and post-exertion massages. Sports massage technique is typically fairly gentle, used to invigorate and warm the muscles before exercise, and to soothe and speed recovery after serious efforts. While it's nice to have a massage therapist, it's absolutely not necessary to enjoy the benefits of sports massage – self massage is very common, particularly for those of us not quite as well supported as the world's top pro sports teams! The oil blends used in sports massage are simple yet effective, including oils such as Eucalyptus (invigorates, opens breathing passages, relieves pain), Lavender (anti-inflammatory, spasm-relieving), Rosemary (invigorates, opens airways, stimulates the mind, warms muscles), Peppermint (stimulates, increases circulation), Juniper Berry (detoxifies, speeds removal of lactic acid), Ginger (increases circulation, relieves pain) and Marjoram (calms, relieves muscle spasms).
For a pre-sports rub to loosen-up and warm the muscles, add 8 drops of Rosemary, 4 drops lavender and 4 drops Eucalyptus essential oils to each ounce of carrier oil (Grapeseed and/or Sweet Almond oils work well). Rub either just the legs or the entire body to help get you off to your best start. Post-exercise, use 8 drops Lavender, 4 drops Juniper Berry and 4 drops Sweet Marjoram. For an alternate post exercise rub for over-exerted muscles, use 8 drops Eucalyptus, 8 drops Peppermint and 8 drops Ginger essential oil for your blend. Recovery from competition or workouts can be greatly enhanced by the post-sport rub: the elimination of metabolic waste products and enhancing circulation (thereby bringing important electrolytes and other nutrients to the muscles faster) will have a noticeable effect on your ability to bounce back to top form. In all these blends, you may adjust the concentrations of essential oils to your liking – remembering that it is often the case that smaller amounts of oils will provide more relaxing effects, larger ones more stimulating.
Essential oils can be used in baths and before and after showering as well. The same oils mentioned above can be added to a bath after it is drawn for a relaxing post-exertion soak. Be sure to add any oils to the bathwater after the bath is drawn so they do not evaporate before you get in! For showering, oils can be applied to the body ‘neat' on a clean washcloth before the shower – this can be especially helpful post-exertion to support elimination of toxins – one drop each of Rosemary, Lemon, Eucalyptus and Peppermint would be ideal for this purpose. An oil blend (in a carrier) can applied directly after a shower or bath when the pores are open. Use either a stimulating/cleansing blend or relaxing one (including Lavender, Marjoram and/or Mandarin) depending on the desired result.
Sometimes the going gets a little more rough for all athletes; injuries such as sprains, strains and bruises are common in many sports. The most important prescription for any injury is rest, but most athletes, eager to maintain their hard-earned level of fitness, rarely heed this suggestion. Enter the healing support of essential oils. Many essential oils are powerful healers of skin, muscle and connective tissue. Several well-known oils have strong anti-inflammatory properties, and contain safe varieties of ‘ketones' which signal the regeneration of tissue. On top of that, there's the stress-relieving ‘aromatherapy' aspect, which can further enhance the healing process in nearly all cases.
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.
Finally, aside from the direct ‘sports related' uses of essential oils, the 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. Immune support can be provided by diffusing ‘air clearing' essential oils like Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Thyme, Rosemary and Lemon into the living space to disinfect the air and prevent transmission of illness. Another highly regarded method of strengthening the immune system is applying Niaouli essential oil directly to the body after a warm shower; ten to twenty drops rubbed into the skin is recommended by one of America's leading medical aromatherapists for this purpose.
These are just a few suggestions for incorporating essential oils into the life of the athlete to improve their health, fitness, and performance. 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. Experimenting with essential oils can be extremely rewarding, and finding the right combination for support of sports performance can add a whole new dimension to one's athletic endeavors.
The author is a natural health practitioner in Boulder, Colorado. She is a regular user of therapeutic aromatherapy techniques and consultant to aromatherapy creations at The Ananda Apothecary, makers of pure and natural essential oils.