• Michael Phelps at the Pan Pacific Championships, Gold Coast, 2014. Photo: Dave Hunt (AAP)Source: AAP
Athletes are vulnerable to products claiming to give them an edge – even if there’s no evidence supporting the efficacy.
Kemal Atlay

9 Aug 2016 - 2:53 PM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2016 - 9:35 PM

As the Rio Olympics are in full swing, our collective attention is once more drawn not only to the impressive feats a human body can achieve, but also the various strange things athletes use to get an edge. Many of these items and therapies have people scratching their heads thinking “do these really work?” and “should I be doing that too?”

Splurging on some high-tech device is unlikely to turn you into an elite athlete anyway, but here’s a quick look at the science behind some of these sports fads so you know what really does make a difference, and what’s just marketing.

Compression sportswear

Light and durable sportswear that hugs the body has become very popular in recent years amongst not just professional athletes, but also the general public. Brands like SKINS and 2XU market their compression sportswear as being able to “increase endurance performance” and “reduce fatigue and shorten recovery times.” But is any of this supported by scientific research?

Short answer: the jury is still out. Compression sportswear supposedly enhances athletic performance by reducing muscle ‘vibration’, where energy can be lost, and increasing proprioception, or an individual’s awareness of where their body is in the space around them. However, research to date has been inconclusive and there is “little evidence” to support these claims.

Associate Professor Olga Troynikov, an expert in sport and performance apparel from RMIT, tells SBS Science that compression garments are still a relatively new phenomenon in the sporting world, and while research on such items is still being conducted, some athletes are enthusiastic about the benefits.

“As far as compression garments are concerned, the research community is split about 50-50 on their effectiveness,” she says. "There will be people who swear by it, but some people [will be] very sceptical. That's why hopefully having both, we arrive at some truth, eventually."

Cooling sportswear

Cooling fabrics have also been in the spotlight with claims from manufacturers that they can improve performance in high-intensity sports by enhancing sweat evaporation. But recent studies have failed to show an improvement in performance or superiority over standard cotton sportswear.

Breathing strips

Nose breathing strips (also known as nasal dilator strips) have been worn by athletes in various sports like American football and long-distance cycling, and have even been used in horse racing. The thinking goes that by increasing nasal airflow, you can improve cardiovascular function and thus enhance your overall performance.

Although studies have shown that these strips can increase nasal valve cross-sectional area and reduce nasal resistance, these simply do not translate to improve cardio-respiratory functioning

Titanium jewellery and energy wristbands

Unlike the aforementioned sports apparel, the manufacturers of titanium jewellery and energy wristbands make no claims about physiological changes in the body, and instead rely on a pseudoscientific reliance on ‘energy systems’.

Phiten, a company that makes titanium jewellery, claims its products improve circulation, reduce muscle stress, and enable faster recovery from intense physical activity or injury. Simply put, there is no scientific evidence to support this. Same goes for energy wristbands, which claim to increase the wearer’s balance, strength, and endurance.

Troynikov says athletes and others who swear by these items’ effectiveness could be performing better due to their psychological state.

“The placebo effect is so strong sometimes that the body is tricked into, in this case, performing better if it believes that it should,” she says. "The mechanism could be different to what these bracelets claim to do."

However, she adds that it's not a blanket statement about every single device out there: "Let’s not reject everything and let’s not accept everything, we have to question."

Kinesio tape

This trend actually peaked at the 2012 Olympics, but if you've been watching the gymnastics or rugby sevens this year, you may have noticed those colourful strips of tape over athletes' shoulders, knees and other critical joints or large muscle groups. Elite athletes and sports physiotherapists alike claim that kinesio tape can help to enhance performance, reduce the likelihood of injury and relieve pain from existing injuries. 

Scientists have mostly dismissed these claims - a meta analysis published last year found it to be no more effective than other pain treatment options - and argue that the perceived benefits may be attributed to a phenomenon called novel sensory input, where the sensation of the tape alters the way your brain controls that body area. 

Beach volleyball players wearing kinesio tape at the Grand Slam Moscow in 2011.

Cupping therapy

Swimming events, in all their spectacle, controversies, and rivalries, are often the highlight of the summer Olympics. Keen followers would have noticed the large, red, perfectly round bruises covering the bodies of various swimmers, including the legendary Michael Phelps. They’re signs of the ancient Chinese therapy of cupping.

Michael Phelps' purple blotches spotlight 'cupping' trend
It wasn't just Michael Phelps' big win on Sunday that had people talking about the US swimming star. It was also the dark purple circles on his shoulders.

Cupping works by heating glass cups before placing them on the skin – as the cup cools down, it creates suction that allows it to stick to the skin. More modern techniques rely on cups with pumps to create the suction, but the effects are the same. It is claimed that cupping increases blood flow and ‘chi’ to the suction area and aids muscle recovery, but does it really work?

This is another instance where the jury is still out, as results from many studies looking at the effects of cupping on everything from arthritis to muscle injury are inconclusive. It is thought that, similar to the energy wristbands, it only has a placebo effect. 

Update 10 August: this story has been updated to include additional comments from Professor Troynikov.

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