Since Michael Phelps won his record 21st gold medal, the media has been abuzz about the purple polka dots spotting his shoulders and back. These bruises came from the holistic therapy known as cupping. And Phelps wasn't the only one sporting the dots: other swimmers and gymnasts have been spotted this year with the tell-tale marks of the practice that originates in Chinese medicine.
The Olympics and elite-level sports are essentially an arms race; athletes and trainers look for the latest in sports nutrition, training techniques, and technology to give them even the tiniest of competitive edges. Yet scientists don't always agree on the effectiveness of many of those techniques. Here’s what science says about some of the more interesting ways athletes are going for the gold.
The star of the 2016 games is definitely cupping, in which a trainer attaches a glass or plastic bell to an athlete's skin by heating the cup or using a suction device. The idea is that the suction from the cup pulls blood to the surface of the skin, breaking capillaries. According to Brian Resnick at Vox, practitioners believe that it helps in recovery and reduces pain. Chinese medicine practitioners believe it opens up qi channels.
But the scientific studies don't back up the claims. Resnick points out that several meta studies on cupping, including one in 2015, found little evidence that cupping did anything for the human body, except provide a strong placebo effect. “It’s all speculation,” Dr. David Shurtleff, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health tells Jeremy Samuel Faust at Slate, pointing out that nothing in the literature explains why the technique would work.
In the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Japanese distance runner Naoko Takahashi set a new record during the women’s marathon. A year later, she set a new world record at the Berlin Marathon. Her secret? Vomit from the larvae of giant hornets.
According to Stephanie Strom at The New York Times, a researcher named Takashi Abe at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research uncovered an amino acid produced by the larva of Vespa mandarinia, the Asian giant hornet. That insect supposedly can travel up to 60 miles at 25 miles per hour while hunting. Abe was able to synthetically synthesize the amino acid, which was added to an energy drink called VAAM (Vespa amino acid mixture), which Takahashi and other Japanese runners credited for their performance.
According to Charlie Norton at Vice, the amino acids are supposed to kick up metabolism and burn fat while also giving a little extra stamina. At least one study shows ingesting VAAM does increase oxygen intake and decreases fat in older women. However, this study, and others like it, have had too small of sampling groups to draw any definitive conclusions. There’s no word on whether anyone at the Olympics is pounding hornet vomit this time around, but it’s commercially available in products like VAAM, Hornet Juice and Vespa.
In the 2008 Beijing games and the 2012 London games viewers began noticing athletes wearing colorful strips of Kinesio tape all over their bodies. Lauren Hansen reports for Mental Floss that the product was developed in the 1970s but didn't hit the mainstream in the late 2000s. The cotton ribbon is supposed to pull layers of skin up and away from sore muscles, relieving pressure if it is applied by a trained Kinesio taper. Some athletes, like U.S. beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings who is wearing the tape during the 2016 games, swear by the stuff
According to Kate Kelland at Reuters, however, the scientific evidence is not there yet. She writes that a 2012 meta-review of Kinesio tape studies showed “little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries.”
“It may be a fashion accessory, and it may be just one of those fads that come along from time to time, but to my knowledge there’s no firm scientific evidence to suggest it will enhance muscle performance,” Steve Harridge, a professor of human and applied physiology at King's College London, tells Kelland.
Elite runners often move to high-altitude regions like Mammoth, California, to breath in the mountain air, which has one third less oxygen than air at sea level. Geoffrey Rogow at The Wall Street Journal, explains that training at altitude increases lung capacity and endurance as well as red blood cell counts. It’s one reason 95 percent of Olympic medalists in distance running have trained at altitude since 1968.
But not everyone can train in the mountains. So athletes turn to altitude chambers, which are tents that mimic life on a mountain top—attracting notables like Michael Phelps and runner Mo Farah. The Australian swim team even had their pool outfitted with a machine that mimics altitude, reports Rogow.
So does it make a difference? Maybe, but the studies are inconclusive. One from 2005 showed few improvements for athletes and no change in hemoglobin mass. Anecdotal accounts of improvements are all over the Internet. But in these instances, it's hard to tease out real from placebo effects. While altitude training on mountains definitely works, the home version seems to be missing some critical elements.
In the last few years, Olympic distance runners like Mo Farrah, Dylan Wykes and Ryan Hall have admitted to drinking beet juice before races. The theory is that the nitrates in the thick red liquid enhances blood flow to muscles during exercise. But a recent study from Penn State showed no effects on blood flow from the beets, though they did “de-stiffen” blood vessels at rest, allowing the heart to work more efficiently. But the verdict is still out. The research team says the effects may be different when the body is undergoing more demanding exercises, such as marathon running, than the ones tested in the study.
There are some hints that beet juice does have a few superpowers. Alistair Bland at NPR reports that another recent study showed beet juice improved muscle power in patients with heart failure by 13 percent. Other research suggests that the juice helped patients with the lung disease COPD improve their ability to exercise.
Just remember, the placebo effect can be very strong on its own. So even if a particular training or nutrition ritual doesn't physiologically make you stronger, never fear. If you believe it works, it just might.