Nothing says “beach volleyball” like a bunch of colorful tape streaked across your body.
As the 2016 Summer Olympics get started, there’s lots to look forward to, including incredible feats of athleticism and stories about how well the city of Rio is or isn’t dealing with the influx of athletes and fans.
But if 2008 or 2012 offer any guide, we’ll also see athletes’ bodies covered in stripes of colorful tape — specifically, something called kinesiology tape or (more commonly) kinesio tape.
But what is it? And why is it there?
There are several different versions of this bright adhesive. In 2008 and 2012, athletes were frequently wearing Kinesio Tex Tape, which was developed by a Japanese chiropractor in 1979. Currently, KT Tape is the “official kinesiology tape licensee” for Team USA.
Kinesio’s website says their tape “alleviates discomfort and facilitates lymphatic drainage by microscopically lifting the skin.” They say that it can be “applied over muscles to reduce pain and inflammation, relax overused or tired muscles, and support muscles in movement on a 24-hour-a-day basis.”
According to KT Tape’s site, their tape is applied ” to provide a lightweight, external support that helps you remain active while recovering from injuries. KT Tape creates neuromuscular feedback (called proprioception) that inhibits (relaxes) or facilitates stronger firing of muscles and tendons.”
Both sites also give long lists of conditions the tape may help, ranging from headaches to sore muscles to shin splints — though there’s limited research to back up those long lists.
Does it work?
Plenty of athletes might occasionally rely on athletic tape for support or to limit certain movement, but is there something special about this kinesio taping?
It’s kind of hard to say. Most research hasn’t found significant benefits to using the tape.
Several reviews of studies that analyzed the clinical use of kinesio taping for people with musculoskeletal conditions found no evidence it helped patients. So for people with chronic conditions that need treatment (not usually Olympic athletes), the tape probably doesn’t do much.
Yet one recent review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine did find that “Kinesio taping is superior to minimal intervention for pain relief.” Other studies have found that the taping may potentially increase range of motion slightly, but there’s not necessarily evidence that one type of tape is better than another.
So, it seems that there could potentially be some small effect for pain or range of motion from Kinesio Tex Tape or KT Tape, but that effect is not a particularly large one.
And yet, tons of athletes seem to love the stuff. In addition to Olympians, athletes likeLance Armstrong and David Beckham used the adhesive during their careers.
Surprisingly, that choice may be more logical than it seems, even if there’s no actual physical benefit to taping.
If it turns out there really is some slight pain relieving or range of motion increasing effect, it’s easy to see why that would matter to an Olympic athlete. Competitions are won or lost by fractions of a second, and even a .05% performance gain could be the difference between standing on the podium or sitting off to the side.
But even if there’s no performance boost whatsoever from the tape, it could still be worth wearing if an athlete thinks it helps them. Study after study has documented the benefits of the placebo effect. People who think they’ve been given caffeine ormorphine feel less fatigue or pain, even if all they’ve ingested is a sugar pill.
And as human and applied physiology professor Steve Harridge told Reuters in 2012, “the fact that athletes think it’s going to do them some good can help in a psychological way.”
And a psychological edge and the confidence that comes with it may be all someone needs to hurl a javelin further than their opponent or to spike that volleyball one final time.