On Tough Mudder event day, don’t be surprised if you see many Mudders sporting brightly colored kinesiology tape strategically placed all over their bodies. What’s the deal? These mud-lovers aren’t just accessorizing pre mud-run—they’re actually using an increasingly popular athletic tool to support and protect their bodies.
What Is Kinesiology Tape?
For the uninitiated, kinesiology tape, aka kinesio tape, is a super-stick, high-tech athletic tape that’s Swamp Stomp-proof (read: water- and mud-resistant). So nope, this isn’t that old-school white tape you probably wrapped around a bum ankle, wrist, or finger in high school.
“Kinesio tape is incredibly versatile and can be applied in hundreds of ways,” explains Hannah Dove, DPT, CSCS with Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, CA. “It can be used to treat injuries, to enhance the function of muscles and tissues in order to decrease pain, decrease swelling and to prevent injuries.”
How Does Kinesio Tape Work?
To start, you need to understand what makes kinesiology tape different from regular old athletic tape. Physical therapist Allen Jarratt PT, of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, GA, explains that while athletic tape is rigid and meant to add support by limiting motion, kinesiology tape is flexible (it can be stretched up to 150% of its original length) and can be positioned around the joints so that it’s able to move with the body.
Another difference? “Kinesiology tape does not have adhesive on every inch of the back. It’s laid down in a "fingerprint" or swirly pattern, which is to help create a ripple effect on your skin,” says certified kinesiotape practitioner Lauren Lobert, DPT, OMPT, CSCS and owner of APEX Physical Therapy in Brighton, MI.
Kinesiology tape’s stick-pattern helps lift the skin microscopically, which Lobert says decompresses the area and allows more room for blood and lymph flow. Because blood carries the nutrients our bodies need to recover and helps remove the waste and byproducts of inflammation, the increased blood flow is thought to promote recovery and decrease inflammation.
Kinesio tape is also thought to reduce pain. No, there’s not medicine in it. Rather, it may inhibits the pain pathways between the muscles and joints and the brain. The exact science here isn’t known, but Lobert says that anecdotally, many physical therapists and athletic trainers swear that it works. In fact one review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that kinesio tape may be able to provide as much relief for taped-up folks as manual therapy.
Lobert explains that the tape may also help with joint alignment, too. “It gives receptors under your skin a tactile cue on your joint's position in space to help to retrain your body's proprioceptive system.” The idea is that the tape provides feedback to the brain about proper joint position, so that over time the brain is able to replicate this position on its own, without the tape, explains Jarratt.
There are many other uses of kinesio tape. For instance, Dove says that some PT’s will cut the tape into smaller strips and apply them over an inflamed area after injury, while others suggest it for common injuries in runners such as shin splints, patellar tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendonitis.
The tape can make anyone look like the baddest, most hardcore mudder ever, but the American Council on Exercise say it works best for best for people who have chronic pain originating from musculoskeletal injuries and individuals who have acute pain and inflammatory conditions such as acute ligament sprains and muscle strains.
How To Use Kinesiology Tape
You can’t just apply kinesio tape willy nilly. “This is not traditional tape,” says Lobert. “You can't just put it on without knowing what you're doing and expect results. There are very specific skills on where to start and end the tape, which direction to pull and how much to pull.” Translation: it has to lay in certain areas for it to be effective.
Intimidated? There are many resources online that can help to teach you how to tape yourself, but Lobert suggests finding a local Certified Kinesiotape Practitioner who can teach you to tape yourself for your specific injuries or needs.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based fitness and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 trainer. When she's not lifting heavy sh*t, playing rugby, or getting downright dirty, she can be found reading memoirs and guzzling cold brew. Follow her on Instagram.