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What's That Weird Athletic Tape Olympians Have All Over Their Bodies?

Courtesy of KT Tape

If you've been watching Rio Olympics beach volleyball at all (which, how could you not?), you've likely seen three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings sporting some kind of weird tape all over her shoulder. WTF is that?

While it looks extremely badass, the Team USA-logo tape serves another purpose. It's actually kinesiology tape—a higher-tech version of that old-school white athletic tape you used to wrap up bad ankles and wrists during high school sports.

You can use the super sticky fabric strips to tape everything from sprained ankles and injured knees to tight calves, a sore lower back, pulled neck muscles, or tight hamstrings. It's a super useful new tool for both speeding up recovery and improving performance—and you don't need to be an Olympic athlete to use it.

How It Works

Kinesiology tape aids in active recovery for injuries and common aches by reducing the perception of pain and improving the balance of tissue tension across muscles and joints, says biomechanics expert Ted Forcum, DC, DACBSP, FICC, CSCS, who's on the medical advisory board for KT Tape (the official kinesiology tape licensee of the U.S. Olympic Team). The tape lifts the skin very slightly, taking pressure off swelling or injured muscles, and allowing fluid to move more freely beneath the skin to reach the lymph nodes, says Ralph Reiff, head of the Athlete Recovery Center for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro.

It provides similar support to regular athletic tape, but without constricting the muscles or limiting your range of motion. This is super important because moving an injured body part to get blood flow to the area is key to recovery, says Forcum. Plus, if your normal range of motion is limited, you're likely to "cheat" by compensating somewhere else. (BTW did you know that these common muscle imbalances could be causing all sorts of pain?) "But if kinesiology tape can get you to a position where you feel a bit better, more stable, you'll be more confident in moving the body part. That movement can reduce swelling and influence the lay-down of new collagen fibers and protective tissue, and that's what causes tissue to repair."

"Say you're taping an ankle—you're going to compensate by trying to get more range of motion out of your hip or knee, and when you do that, that puts you at risk for another injury," says Forcum. "But when you're using kinesiology tape, you can apply it to a body part but still maintain that range of motion, so there's no need to cheat or compensate somewhere else."

For Fit-Girl Aches and Pains

Plus, unlike regular athletic tape, kinesiology tape isn't reserved for stabilizing joints—you can use it on your muscles too. When you exercise, your muscles literally expand by about 20 percent, says Forcum. (See, getting "swole" isn't just a meathead thing.) Kinesiology tape provides the support of regular tape (think of it as a hug or constant massage for your muscles), but allows that expansion and movement to happen.

If you know your shins or calves get tight during long runs, or that your upper back gets cranky during a long flight, you can tape up those areas to keep the muscles happy. Insanely sore quads from yesterday's leg workout? Try taping 'em up. Walsh-Jennings, for example, uses it for extra support after two shoulder dislocations, and to nix pain in her lower back. (Creative users even put it to work on horses and for help supporting pregnant bellies.)

Bonus: you don't need a trainer's help or a ton of cash to pull it off. You can buy a roll for between $10-15 and put it on yourself. (KT Tape has a whole library of videos that teaches even the least medical-savvy human how to tape themselves.)

Still Curious and/or Confused?

When it comes to how kinesiology tape works, there's still a lot we don't know. In fact, Forcum says that they recently found out that the effects of kinesiology tape last for about 72 hours after you've taken it off. But why? They're not quite sure.

"Right now, there are more questions than answers from a science standpoint," he says. "We've found out a lot about the tape's effect in even in the last 6-8 months. What we do know is that the tape is making changes—structural changes in the connective tissue of our bodies and neurological changes."

And while the application of the tape might be an almost instantaneous fix for some people, for others, it might take a little more time to reap the benefits. But if you're going to take a chance on a recovery or performance product, this is a pretty safe bet. At the cost of a few lattes and with no serious risks, you can at least give it a shot to banish that one weird pain you have while running. (And, hey, you'll definitely look badass with it on.)

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