A bunch of years ago, a new coach I was working with sustained a minor soft tissue issue (peroneal tendon, as I recall) and I offered him some dit da jow to help ease the pain and ease his recovery. Next thing you know, half of my team was being told to use the stuff. It’s fantastic, yet hardly anyone in the endurance sports community knows about it. It’s time to let the cat out the bag.
Dit da jow is a form of Chinese liniment commonly used in martial arts. Forget about what you know about liniment, balms, and embrocation– all of which smell like Ben-Gay and leave your body with an itchy-icy-hot feeling. Traditional dit da jows (DDJ) are nothing like that. First, very few if any have methyl salicyclate (oil of wintergreen) that gives western liniments their characteristic smell. Instead, they use traditional Chinese medicine principles and ingredients to open up pathways, balance energies, and restore Qi. All esoteric eastern medicine aside, they also work damn well to increase blood flow while reducing inflammation.
A Painful Introduction to Dit Da Jow
I was turned on to DDJ back in 1993 when I was riding my first Ride the Rockies bike tour in Colorado. By day 4, I was suffering. Naturally a low-cadence “grinding” kind of cyclist, I was finding my limitations. When I got off the bike, I could barely move my right leg and, over the next few hours, my knee locked up to the point that I simply could not bend it. I spent money on a massage, which only loosened things up slightly. My IT band was an unrelenting knot. Unfortunately, when you do long bike tours like this, there aren’t too many options when injury forces you to stop– and suddenly I was stuck in the middle of Colorado and hundreds of miles from the finish. My massage therapist handed me a small bottle of DDJ and told me to rub it in four times every hour and that I would be fine to ride the next day. To say I was skeptical was an understatement. “No way will some hocus-pocus Chinese stuff I’ve never heard of get me past this when nothing I’ve ever tried in the past has worked,” I thought to myself. But I did what my massage therapist told me to do. By the time I went to bed, it felt noticeably better, but still hard to bend.
When I woke up the next morning, I thought that the day before had been a bad dream. I woke up and my right knee was fine. Perfectly fine. I had absolutely no trouble bending it. But the real test would be on the bike. As I started out, I was a little tentative at first, but I was able to gently let down my guard over the next hour and was backing to hammering. I made sure to find the massage therapist who saved me the day before and I bought another two bottles of his magical DDJ. Unfortunately, the internet wasn’t what it is today back in 1993 and finding more DDJ proved just about impossible back in Washington, DC. It wasn’t until much later that I would be reintroduced to the magical stuff.
Enter Plum Dragon Herbs
Since my introduction in 1993, I was on a continual quest to find more of the stuff I had used back in 1993. I had a few false starts but, as the Internet grew, more resources started coming online. One was Plum Dragon Herbs. They have a huge collection of different types of DDJ, each tailored to specifically martial arts disciplines. Suddenly my problem of “too few options” had become a problem of “too many options.” Over the next few years, I bought and used different combinations of DDJs trying to find the perfect one to use in my training. In doing so, I got much more than I bargained for. In addition to finding a rough equivalent to the DDJ that I used back in 1993, I also found a lot of others that are highly specialized and serve their own purposes.
Which Dit da Jows Do I Use
There are four DDJs that I keep in my gym bag at all times. I sewed a small neoprene case to hold four small glass dropper bottles) to hold them (note: it’s important to use glass instead of plastic because DDJs react poorly to plastic over time).
- Ho Family DDJ. This is the one picture at the top of this post. It is my go-to DDJ 90% of the time. It definitely warms things up and improves blood flow, but in a much deeper and more subtle way than Tiger Balm (which doesn’t make the cut in my list). If I have any place that may cause problems during a workout, I make sure to hit it with Ho Family DDJ before I even start warming up. This stuff seems to make my warmups faster and more effective. It’s also great as an hourly rub for injuries that are past the initial inflammation stage (i.e. you don’t want to use it on new injuries that are still swollen with inflammation). It smells a bit like a nice bowl of curry.
- Bruise JIUce. Yes, it’s spelled correctly– it’s name is a play on Jiu Jitsu, the martial art from which it developed. This DDJ is like Ho Family, except it is more cooling. This means that I don’t like to use it before working out. Bruise JIUce is a great hourly rub for muscle injuries that are still in the initial inflammation stages. It smells like Ho Family, except with a touch more a piquant lift.
- Jeet Kune Do. This DDJ is almost exactly like the stuff I remember from the Ride the Rockies. It is also very cooling and works exactly the same as Bruise JIUce but for tendons and other connective tissue. It has a softer, almost fruitier nose than Bruise JIUce. It also tends to be thick with particulates (that’s a good thing) and almost forms a poultice as it dries.
- San Huang San. While its initials are “SHS,” they might as well be “SOS”– this is the stuff to use as soon as you get an injury and need to calm things down fast! San Huang San isn’t really a DDJ but it can be made into a tonic just like one. In this role, I’ve found it to be deadly effective in killing pain and calming inflammation before it gets out of hand. The folks over at Plum Dragon Herbs are decidedly anti-ice– and appropriately so! In fact, as much as our sports culture loves to use ice after injuries, there is very little evidence that it actually does anything (yes, there’s a reason that our sport’s fascination with ice baths has waned in recent years– it’s because the pro’s have figured out that there are far more effective ways to recover).
How Do I Use Them
Using DDJ can get a little messy but it’s worth the effort. Basically, you just use the dropper bottle and put a few drops on your skin and rub it in with your hands. This can leave your hands smelling a bit like a Chinese herb shop but it seems inevitable. I’ve tried using spray bottles, but the rubbing action seems to really help DDJ penetrate. I’ve also tried using rubber gloves, but there’s something about the extra friction than skin-to-skin contact provides that makes it more effective than using rubber gloves. Beyond that, it depends on why you are using DDJ:
- As a Warmup. If I’m using Ho Family DDJ as a warmup liniment, I don’t make it much of a ritual. I will just put a few drops on and rub it in. It’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve reached the point where it’s effective.
- As a Post-Workout Liniment. If I’m dealing with an injury, I will try to thoroughly rub in the appropriate DDJ (see above), let it dry, and then repeat. The folks over at Plum Dragon have a useful page on integrating DDJ into your recovery routine (which reminds me that I need to order some of their Ancestors Advanced DDJ and see if it is useful in my training). If you need to smell fresh and rosy, you can hit your aching muscles with some DDJ– how much you apply and how much you rub it in depends on how badly you hurt. If you’re at a training camp or some place where smelling fresh and rosy isn’t as essential, then go ahead and do the same thing after your shower.
- For Specific Injuries. This is where things get a little more intense. The traditional way to do it is to put on a few drops and rub it in until it is absorbed. Then you repeat this three times for one application. Then you do three application per day. In other words, it’s a 3×3 pattern. A more aggressive way to do it is 3-4 time per application with one application every hour. This last way seems to be the most effective for injuries. A great way to augment it is to put a few drops on a cotton ball and tape the cotton ball to your injury before going to bed.
How Do You Get Them? How Do You Make Them?
The best way to buy DDJ is to order pre-aged DDJ directly from Plum Dragon Herbs. Making DDJ isn’t a quick, modern process. Basically, the herbs have to be prepared (sometimes by frying) and ground to varying degrees (not everything should be finely pulverized). Then the ingredients are mixed in 50% ethanol and aged. Plum Dragon’s pre-aged DDJ saves you all the trouble. I’d recommend buying them in relatively small bottles to start. This way you can see if you like it and get a sense of how you might use it.
Once you’ve settled on a DDJ that you like, you’ll want to have a lot of it around. Again, Plum Dragon Herbs is happy to help out as they can sell you a half-gallon of pre-aged DDJ. Unfortunately, the shipping cost of sending large fragile glass bottles of liquid can get a bit cost-prohibitive, so a much more cost-effective way is to make your own DDJ using one of Plum Dragon Herb’s herb packs. Each of the DDJ’s I’ve recommended are available as dried herb packs in either half-gallon or full gallon sizes and are surprisingly inexpensive. All you need then is the cheapest 100 proof unflavored vodka (not gin, whiskey etc– just plain vodka because it is the purest form of alcohol and water). You want 100 proof vodka because it’s 50% alcohol and 50% water– both key solvents for the herb’s magical properties. I recall that I was able to get mine on sale for about $5 a bottle. So for about $30 in vodka and a $48 herb pack, you can make a whole gallon of DDJ that would otherwise cost you about $200 plus about $30 in shipping charges. The only extra ingredient that you need is time– at least six months to age your new DDJ. Making my San Huang San DDJ is a little different– mostly because martial arts folks seem to prefer using the powder to make a poultice. I’ve had better success by ordering two of the herb packs (they are inexpensive– only $8 each) and asking that they be pre-ground. Then I mix it with 100 proof vodka in a half-gallon container.
Because DDJ “ages” by slowly dissolving more and more of the key chemicals from its herbs, it gets stronger and stronger as it sits with its herbs for longer periods of time. By the time that they reach about two years of age, they are very powerful remedies indeed! After about four years, however, they seem to become less effective with more herb exposure. At that point, I like to run them through a coffee filter and bottle them for use in a spray bottle (spray bottles don’t work with liquids that have particles in suspension– the particles clog up the pumping mechanisms). This is one of the real benefits of making and aging your own DDJ is that you can make really powerful concoctions that are much stronger than other things on the market.
Before you go too crazy with DDJ, a few warnings are in order. First, while DDJ beats the smell of Ben-Gay any day of the week, they do have distinctive odors. Your partner, pets, and coworkers may take notice of the smell. It’s not unpleasant but it is noticeable. Second, it can stain clothing. This is particularly true of San Huang San. Third, they can also be surprisingly effective. This may come as a disconcerting surprise to your competitors as you zoom past them.