RIO DE JANEIRO -- Viewers of the Rio Olympics on Sunday may have noticed circular bruises on several members of the U.S. swimming and gymnastics team, including Michael Phelps. Those circles are from a healing technique known as cupping.
Alex Naddour has tried massages, a hot tub for recovery and gotten cortisone shots before a competition. The relief they offer from the wear-and-tear his body has taken from gymnastics is often only temporary.
But he’s found a $15 solution on Amazon.
Like many on the American men’s team, Naddour has found cupping provides relief from the soreness and pounding that come from gymnastics.
“That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” Naddour said. “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”
The technique uses suction in cups to pull the skin away from the body and promote blood flow. It can be done with heat by lighting flammable liquid in a glass cup and suctioning that to the back once the flame goes out, with the decrease in temperature creating the suction.
But many of the men’s gymnasts take the do-it-yourself approach, applying the cups themselves and creating suction with a pump.
“You’re like, ‘OK, I’m sore here,’” said team captain Chris Brooks. “Throw a cup on, and your roommate will help you or you can do it yourself.”
Like Naddour, Brooks was an alternate in London before making the team this year. They’re not old by any normal measure – Naddour is 25 and Brooks 29 – but they’re veterans in the sport.
Brooks in particular has seen gymnastics wear on his body, needing multiple surgeries on his forearm, shoulder, thumb, hand and ankles.
For him, cupping is one of many therapies he relies on at the Olympic Training Center, where he lives in Colorado Springs. There he has access to a sauna, steam room, manual therapy, massage and Game Ready, a cold therapy compression system.
“I wish I treated my body as good then as I do now,” he said. “No method hasn’t been tested. No stone hasn’t been unturned. If there’s something that’s out there that somebody believes is going to be beneficial for my situation, I gave it a shot and then we ran with what worked best for my body in particular.”
While Jake Dalton has tried cupping, he relies more on massage and a Game Ready after having shoulder surgery last season. He’s recovered from but still feels soreness – especially after a strength event like still rings.
“The more you get injured, the more you try to keep up with things,” Dalton said.
For those like Naddour who swear by cupping, they say it helps because it releases the tendons and muscles my pulling them up rather than having them pressed as they would be in a massage.
While they can do it on their own, Naddour said having someone help move the cups around can help loosen muscles and tendons.
No matter who does it, though, the therapy almost always leaves a circular bruise. Given the benefits, it’s a small tradeoff for something that can ease the physical demands gymnastics puts on their bodies.
“Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long,” said Naddour. “It’s the best thing that I’ve ever had.
“It has saved me from a lot of pain.”
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