Even if you have no interest in watching overtrained, prepubescent teenage athletes perform ridiculously difficult routines they’ve rehearsed 27,000 times, you likely have a vague memory of the gymnast Kerry Strug. She was a member of the 1996 American Olympic team that has been called “The Magnificent Seven” — the endlessly celebrated group that won the first ever team gold for the US. Strug was the one who performed a clutch vault with an injured ankle. She landed on one foot, clinched the win for team USA and then collapsed in pain. Dramatic stuff.
I saw the now 38-year-old Strug last month at the US Olympic gymnastic trials in San Jose. What was she doing? She was sitting in a booth, marketing a product called KT Tape. It can be used, among other things, to treat injured ankles. What a perfect product endorsement, I thought. I overheard the company representative telling anyone who would listen of the near magical powers of the colourful material.
The Olympics are a massive marketing opportunity, obviously. The CEO of KT Tape, which is sponsoring many Olympic teams, was quoted as saying that the “visibility in the Olympics will help us grow awareness of the brand and encourage people to check it out.” No doubt.
Unfortunately, an investigation by the BBC and the British Medical Journal discovered that many of products and training practices that gain popularity via the Olympics are not supported by sound science. So, in preparation for the upcoming Rio Games, here is a quick debunk of some popular evidence-less sports trends.
Kinesio taping — I guarantee you will see it often while watching almost every Olympic sport. It is that bright coloured tape that athletes put on their shoulders, knees, thighs, stomach, and, well, practically everywhere. It is supposed to help with a host of musculoskeletal injuries. But is there a solid body of evidence to support its use? Nope. While there may be some effect on short term pain relief (likely placebo effect) — which can’t be discounted in the context of athletic performances — it is a pretty evidence free practice. As summarized in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Physiotherapy, “the current evidence does not support the use of this intervention.”
When you think about it, how could this product possibly work? How could tape placed on the surface of the skin help to resolve an issue with a muscle, tendon or bone? For example, if you are a world-class sprinter, bolting from the starting blocks, there is a ridiculous amount of physical force involved. How is a bit of tape on your thigh going to help? But despite the absurd nature of the practice, you will see it everywhere at the Olympics, and I’m certain it will become more and more popular.
Breathing nasal strips — These are those little pieces of tape that athletes put on their noses to increase the airflow. Though very popular — heck, even race horses are using them now — studies have found that the practice does not improve breathing, VO2 max (maximum oxygen intake), or performance. Once again, there may be a placebo effect, but it is an almost entirely science-free approach to enhancing performance. My call? Bunk. In fact, once you start working hard, you breathe mostly through your mouth — the most efficient way to bring in air.
IV hydration — An increasing number of athletes are turning to pre- and post-competition IV hydration. And there is a growing number of hydration “clinics” that are using athlete endorsements to sell the practice. The belief is that IV hydration is a more efficient and effective way to get fluids. But despite its growing profile and popularity, there is no evidence to support the practice. In fact, available evidence suggests that simply using an apparatus called the mouth (aka drinking) is usually the more efficient way to hydrate. Incidentally, IV hydration is prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, except when it is medically required. So, in the context of the Olympics, this is illegal bunk.
Cryotherapy and icing — One of the most common therapies for sports injury is icing. It is so common it has become part of sport culture. Many professional teams have ice baths in their training facilities and athletes are almost always given an ice pack the moment an injury occurs. Yet again, however, there is surprisingly little evidence to support the practice. In fact, one study, from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, published in 2013, concluded that “topical cooling, a commonly used clinical intervention, seems to not improve but rather delay recovery from eccentric exercise–induced muscle damage.” The more extreme version of icing – the recent trend of whole body cryotherapy (WBC) popularized by celebrities – is complete bunk. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration recently issued a public statement about it, calling it “a ‘cool’ trend that lacks evidence” and “poses risks.”
Vitamins and supplements — This is a massive multi-billion-dollar industry. And the journal Sports Medicine has found supplement use to be very common among elite athletes. It is no surprise, then, that supplement companies — such as Herbalife — are sponsoring Olympic teams. Much could be said about the iffy science around many supplements. For the purpose of this Olympic debunk, however, let’s just say that supplement use by athletes perpetuates the myth that there is something magical about supplementation, despite the fact that the evidence regarding the benefits is mixed at best. For must of us, we should simply strive to eat a healthy, balanced diet. In addition, it should not be forgotten that the regulation of the supplement industry is relatively lax. There is huge variation in the contents of the products and only weak evidence is required to support their marketing. For example, BioMed Central found that almost 60 percent of the tested supplement products contained substances not listed on the label. Sixty-eight percent had some form of product substitution. Only 17 percent of the tested herbal supplements had no product substitution, contamination or unlabelled fillers.
The Olympics are a wonderful celebration of athletic performance. But they have also become an international festival of sports pseudoscience. It will take an Olympic–sized effort to fight this bunk and bring a win to the side of evidence-based practice. Go team science!
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