Athletes are always on the lookout for the latest wellness craze. The ears of elite athletes and Olympians will be perked up by anything that promises to improve performance or provide even the slightest advantage to anyone competing at the highest level of their sport — even (or especially) if it appears to be some sort of torture device.
In 2016, the craze was cupping, a pain-relief technique that left athletes like Michael Phelps looking like they’d just fought off a giant octopus with their suction cups. According to The New York Times, this year’s problem is blood flow restriction. Some swimmers and runners are putting tourniquet-like bands around their arms and legs in the hopes of improving their training effectiveness and efficiency.
The strategy was first developed in 1966 by Japanese powerlifter Yoshiaki Sato, but it’s only just caught on with high-profile athletes in the past few years. Michael Andrew, an American swimmer, and Galen Rupp, an American distance runner, are both utilising blood flow restriction during their Olympic training sessions.
Like any good performance-enhancing trend, there’s still only limited evidence showing if or how it works. Some studies show that athletes like rugby, football, and netball players increased their muscle strength and endurance after training with blood flow restriction for a few weeks. The researchers hypothesise that it could increase strength by increasing stress on muscle cells, which would promote muscle development. However, only a few research studies have been conducted on this technique. “Only 9 studies exist on this topic, making concrete conclusions tentative,” wrote the authors of one 2015 review.
That’s been the case for other tools, like cupping and Kinesio tape, which athletes have stretched across joints to try to avoid injuries or prevent pain. Athletes tend to adopt strategies based on anecdotal evidence from peers or if they believe they will benefit them — regardless of whether or not they have concrete evidence to support their claims.
Ultimately, though, it’s possible that this is acceptable. In sports, the placebo effect is extremely powerful, and athletic performance is as much mental as it is physical. There’s a risk that having high-profile athletes put so much emphasis on unproven tools might spread misinformation or distract from good sports science, John Sullivan, a clinical psychologist and sport scientist, told Vice in 2018. Blood flow restriction may not be something that people can or should do at home: the equipment is expensive, and it can be dangerous if not done correctly. However, for elite athletes who are under the constant supervision of sports scientists, believing that a strategy will help them may be sufficient to give them an advantage as long as the strategy does not harm them.