Matt Phillips

Written by Matt Phillips

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What You Need to Know About Kinesiology Tape for Runners

As a runner, chances are you are already familiar with kinesiology tape and may well have personal experience regarding its use.

For the unacquainted, we are talking about the typically brightly coloured tape that is often seen adorning the limbs of both recreational and professional athletes in an attempt to either help rehabilitate an injury or increase performance on race day.

The fact is, these days if you see a therapist for a running related injury, there is a high chance you will leave with at least one strip of kinesiology tape stuck to your body somewhere, normally over the area of pain. But does it actually help? And if so, how does it help?

We are going to look into why kinesio tape may be effective, even if there is little evidence to back it up, and how you can use it correctly to get the most out of your running without becoming reliant on it.

Kinesio tape is common at running events and races, but does it actually help? We research into its background, uses, and effects for runners to give you the best advice on how to use it for performance, without becoming reliant on it to run fast.

History Of Kinesiology Tape

The first documented use of kinesiology tape was in 1979 when Japanese chiropractor Dr. Kenzo Kase developed a strong, stretchy, sticky tape he called ‘Kinesio Tex Tape’, with the purpose of reducing pain and enhancing healing between appointments.

Although the tape was introduced to the USA in 1995 and Europe in 1996, it was not until the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing that the world really saw the tape in action, mainly because Kinesio USA donated 50,000 rolls of it to 58 participating countries.

High profile athletes in volley ball, water polo, wrestling, basketball and even on the track were suddenly seen with mysterious flashes of black, pink and blue tape whilst competing.

Now:

The 2012 Olympics produced an equally impressive display of the tape, and today we see all levels of athletes, especially recreational runners, often covered in new alternative and popular brands that have hit the market, including Rock Tape and KT Tape.

Interestingly:

The term ‘Kinesio Tape’ should strictly speaking only be used by Dr Kenzo’s original company Kinesio as they have trademarks on use of the word, so we will refer to it as kinesiology tape or for the sake of brevity in this article, simply tape.

Does Kinesiology Tape Actually Help With Injuries?

Here lies the problem. Though some runners claim it ‘saves them on race day’, others report no effect at all. As far as research goes, there is a distinct lack of quality investigation. We actually researched this in our previous post about the tape, but overall, there is little to go by.

Here’s the deal:

With the current lack of evidence, claims made by smaller brands such as “aids lymphatic and muscle systems”, “reduces recovery times” or “improves fitness” have lead to them being sued.

Fortunately, some of the larger companies have been devoting time and money into producing higher quality research, but for now we will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, lack of quality research should not be used as a reason to dismiss the use of tape completely.

Many of you would be surprised to hear that much of the therapy used to treat injury is not backed by any quality research – ice, heat, massage, ibuprofen are some of the more common ones, and other methods such as Active Release Technique, Shockwave Therapy, and Ultrasound.

It is the apparent success they have in a clinical environment that means we still continue to use them, and most therapists do report that used as a adjunct, kinesiology tape does seem to help some runners some of the time.

Do you use Kinesiology Tape? You need to read this interesting post from @Runners_Connect! Click To Tweet

Questionable Claims

In the search for justification to use tape, many mechanisms of success have been suggested and promoted. Different tensions of tape, direction of application, even colour of tape are promoted as ways of treating different injuries.

As of yet, none have been substantiated by any evidence.

What the elastic qualities of the tape do seem to do (regardless of degree of stretch) is lift the skin away from the structures underneath it, and it is suggested that this improves blood and lymphatic flow.

Photos of bruises with criss-cross patterns on them where tape has been applied for a few days are often used to demonstrate the effect of tape on blood flow. Whether this visual effect has any relationship with recovery from injury has yet to be demonstrated.

The wrinkles that appear after applying tape to a stretched muscle are used as a sign that some type of ‘decompression’ has occurred between the skin and the tissue underneath.

Now:

The problem is, people see benefits of tape both with and without these wrinkles, so how significant is this ‘decompression’ effect?

Is it the physical effect of fluid being able to flow better and speed up healing, or is it that thanks to the tape the brain is receiving different feedback, given that the skin is the first point of contact for the nervous system?

Is It All In The Mind?

Hearing that kinesiology tape may have an effect on the brain & nervous system is interpreted by many as suggesting that ‘it’s all in the mind’.

Indeed, common objection to the use of kinesiology tape by both therapists and runners is that it is just a ‘placebo effect’ and therefore a waste of time and money.

Such criticism is valid but unsubstantiated as there is no quality evidence to date suggesting kinesiology tape is just a placebo.

In fact:

Involvement of the ‘mind’ or better said the ‘brain & nervous system’ is probably one of the soundest proposed mechanisms out there as to how the tape can help reduce pain. After all, it is our brain that decides if we feel pain, when we feel pain and how much we feel.

The skin is one of many important sources of sensory feedback that our nervous system uses in regulation of pain so maybe the presence of the tape does play a mechanical role? As we said previously, research is light but this may be one of the developments in understanding that comes with time.

Can Kinesiology Tape Be Overused?

Just as the effect of kinesiology tape on the nervous system may be the best explanation as to why we decide to use it, it is also the reason that if presented improperly tape could also have a detrimental effect on the wearer and potentially delay recovery.

Comments like ‘the tape saved me’ or ‘the tape held me together’ can be counterproductive for runners as they can reinforce ingrained beliefs that the body is weak, delicate, dependent on external support.

When we take a look at how modern neuroscience explains pain, belief of vulnerability becomes a very significant factor when looking for ways to reduce pain and overcome injury.

Research has shown that just understanding pain can itself be a great tool in overcoming it, especially when it is what we call persistent or chronic pain (has lasted for over 3 months).

Understanding Pain

Despite the common view of pain as an ‘enemy’, it is actually one of the most highly sophisticated defence mechanisms we have to keep us alive and out of danger.

It protects us by serving as an alarm system to warn us that the brain feels threatened. The important thing to take from this is that the pain alarm sounds when the brain feels threatened and not just when actual damage has occurred.

It would be a pretty useless alarm system if it only sounded when damage had already occurred.

Want to know the best part?

The ‘level of threat’ is based on sensory feedback that the brain receives continuously from all over the body, e.g. our proximity to heat, chemicals, pressure, anything that could result in danger.But sensory feedback of potential threat also includes how we are feeling emotionally, what we see and hear, even memories.

Think about a time when you felt no pain until you saw blood. There was no threat until you saw the blood. And how about the runner who has dislocated their knee so many times that it really doesn’t hurt anymore when they do it, as they know someone will eventually pop it back in and everything will be fine.

Now:

It is important to point out that we are not saying pain is all in your imagination.

Pain is very real.

However, if your goal is to reduce pain, you need to take into account all of the sensory feedback that may be contributing to it. Our bodies are much stronger and resilient than you probably think.

A tear in a muscle may sound horrific but in reality every time you run you are causing painless micro tears. They heal, you get stronger; that’s the way it works. It is our minds that too often delay recovery due to something we have heard or read.

If you use tape in the belief that it is ‘fixing you’ or ‘holding you together’, you may well be subconsciously increasing a perception of vulnerability and threat, fuel for the brain to continue outputting pain.

But here’s the kicker:

Any form of tape, brace or support sends a message to our brain that we may be in danger. This can be a good thing if we have an acute injury that needs rest.

However, the path to recovery (and therefore pain reduction) is one that requires a gradual increase in our confidence to perform.

This means you taking responsibility and control of the situation and actively proving to yourself (your brain) that you are able to move better and perform more challenging tasks. There comes a point when you need to show yourself that you do not need the crutch anymore.

This post from @SportInjuryMatt for @Runners_Connect about kinesiology tape is changing the way we should look at it. Click To Tweet

Conclusion

Though it is true there is as yet little quality research showing that kinesiology tape does anything, on a clinical level many therapists see it helping many people some of the time, in the same way that massage, acupuncture and a lot of manual therapy can reduce pain.

Personally, I suspect the benefits we see are the result of the tape influencing the nervous system via sensory feedback, which is why success is very subjective and depends on the individual runner.

For an excellent debate on this topic, listen to Session 12 of The Physic Matters Podcast in which Rocktape UK’s medical director Paul Coker debates the use of kinesiology tape with staunch tape sceptic & triathlon coach Paul Westwood. With both of these speakers being very experienced and respected full-time physiotherapists, the content is excellent.

Listen to this:

Although the actual mechanics behind the reported benefits of kinesiology tape are as yet unclear, trying to make do with a cheaper tape could waste your time, money and even cause harm.

Cheaper brands have less fibres per cm2 so will naturally hold their shape for less time. They also typically use lower quality glue which means they come off quicker, especially if they are less resistant to water and sweat. You also run the risk of getting more skin irritation with cheaper brands.

Personally, I suspect the benefits we do see are the result of the tape influencing the nervous system via sensory feedback.

On the right person, kinesiology tape can be very useful especially in the early stages of recovery, but it has to form part of a comprehensive treatment program. It is not magic and does not hold you together.

Any impression given to the runner that this is the case can actually delay the recovery process and even result in more pain. Kinesiology tape can be an important step in the ladder to recovery, but as English biologist Thomas Huxley eloquently said: “The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.”

Happy Running!

Awesome post from @SportInjuryMatt for @Runners_Connect about the Pro's and Con's of Kinesiology Tape! A Must Read! Click To Tweet

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt

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