You’ve probably seen pro runners donning black or brightly colored tape on their legs or knees for race day. Or maybe you’ve spotted it on fellow runner standing next to you on a starting line. You might even know that what they’re wearing is called kinesiology tape (or kinesio tape and even “KT tape” thanks to the popular brand for short).
But what does kinesiology tape actually do? And does it help? And how does KT tape work? We tapped top experts in the field to get you answers.
What is kinesiology tape?
Kinesiology tape is, quite literally, tape that you (or, really, your physical therapist or doctor) apply to your muscles. “It’s an elastic tape that provides sensory input into an area, but still allows for full range of motion,” explains Laurey Lou, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist.
It was developed back in the 1970s by Kenzo Kase, a chiropractic doctor, in Japan; instead of using stiff medical tape, he wanted to create something that mimicked the elasticity of human skin. While it was used widely by professional athletes, physical therapists, and trainers alike, it didn’t really go mainstream until the 2008 Summer Olympics—remember when volleyball player Kerri Walsh wore KT tape on her shoulder and subsequently won the gold medal? Now, kinesiology tape is ubiquitous in the athletic world.
Most KT tape is made from a combination of cotton, spandex, and adhesive, which is what makes it different from the standard athletic tape you might see wrapped around someone’s ankle. “Traditional athletic tape is made of just cotton, so it doesn’t have the stretching ability that kinesiology tape has,” explains Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and founder of Movement Vault.
Athletic tape is usually used to create support around a joint, he says, which actually restricts motion. Kinesio tape, on the other hand, can actually stretch up to 40 percent of its original length while retaining its elasticity, which is what allows it to provide support without hindering your body’s movements.
How does KT tape work?
When applied correctly, KT tape is meant to work by lifting the skin from the tissues below it. Everyone has nerve receptors in their skin, as well as in the deep layers of the fascia, muscles, and other connective tissues, Wickham says. “When tape is applied, it causes compression or decompression of these areas, supposedly allowing it to alter pain signals to the brain,” he says.
It’s the tape’s elasticity that matters most. “We can use more tension to turn on or excite a muscle,” says Kellen Scantlebury, D.PT. and owner of Fit Club Physical Therapy and Sports Performance. For example: If someone gets surgery to repair their ACL, their quad will likely be weak. Taping the quad with maximum tension, he explains, brings those muscle fibers together, essentially causing a contraction (which is what strengthens your muscles). (One small study on 15 people does say KT tape may improve the strength of fatigued quads.)
On the flip side, if someone has plantar fasciitis and is experiencing a lot of tightness in their calves, taping with limited tension can supposedly turn “off” the muscle so the person isn’t receiving pain signals, Scantlebury explains.
With that in mind, KT tape may sound like a miracle cure for running injuries, but you don’t want to use it as a crutch. It’s important to talk with your doctor about any injuries and address the root cause, especially before trying DIY-recovery methods.
“When I first work with someone, I have them wear the tape while they’re exercising, while they’re doing day-to-day activities, whatever,” says Scantlebury. The tape typically lasts for three to five days, even if you shower or swim with it, and the constant wear is to re-educate the body to perform in a more optimal way. “You want the tape to give that consistent feedback over a sustained period of time so the body becomes aware that this is now the new normal,” he says.
After one wear, if your muscles are doing what you want, there’s no need to reapply; you don’t want your muscles to rely on the tape to do their job. If they’re still not doing what you want them to do, you can try again with the tape (but wait a few days to give your skin time to breathe).
There’s a pretty major catch to kinesio tape: There’s not a whole lot of evidence that it reduces swelling or pain or increases muscle function, as it claims. One meta-analysis published in 2012 found that it may have a small beneficial role in improving strength and range of motion, but says further studies are needed to confirm these findings. An experiment published in 2015 found that kinesiology tape may just have a placebo effect (one that does work, though).
More recent research, including a systematic review published in 2018, found no compelling evidence to show that KT tape enhances performance. Another systematic review published in 2020, which focused specifically on tendinopathy (or tendon conditions that cause pain and swelling), revealed that there’s little evidence to show KT tape treats these types of injuries beyond the short-term and the authors say more research is needed.
What is KT tape used for?
“Depending on the way kinesiology tape is applied, it can be used for a variety of different things including, but not limited to, muscle inhibition/facilitation, pain relief, decreasing swelling, proprioceptive stability (helping your muscles provide stability while still allowing for motion), and tissue decompression,” Lou says.
For runners, there are a few common pain issues that kinesiology tape may help address. But keep in mind: If you’re experiencing any of these issues and think kinesiology tape could help, head to a professional before you unravel your first roll. “It looks easy, but you don’t want to be turning on or exciting a muscle that’s already overactive or turning off a muscle that’s already underactive,” says Scantlebury. “Over time, that can cause even more damage. Getting some education from a licensed professional is tremendously valuable.”
To find a Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner (CKTP) in your area, visit this site. But here’s a little lesson on what the tapping will look like:
Shin Splints: This kind of pain happens when you overload the muscles in the front of your shin, causing inflammation in the muscle, tendon, and bone. A pro will tape from just below the outside of your knee to just beneath the base of your big toe, then tape additional strips the length of the full width of your shin laterally over your pain points.
Knee Pain: One of the most common issues for runners, knee pain typically stems from imbalances or weak glutes. Your doc will place two strips on the quad muscle and then run them down the right and left of the knee cap to create a teardrop shape, Wickham says. Then place one strip running across the other two below the knee cap.
Plantar Fasciitis: This occurs when you overload the connective tissue that runs from your heel to the base of your toes, resulting in heel pain. A physical therapist will likely put one strip down the bottom of the foot, the another strip crossing the first on the arch area of the bottom of the foot, Wickham says.
Achilles Tendon Pain: Too much stress can tighten and overwork the large tendon connecting the two major calf muscles—the gastrocnemius and soleus—to the back of the heel bone. Your pro will likely place one strip starting at the mid-calf down to the bottom of the foot, then cross another strip over the back of the heel/ankle, Wickham says.
General Muscle Pain: If you’re experiencing general soreness or want more support for a muscle, a professional might place two strips (or cut one strip into a “Y” shape) to border the area, Lou says.
Swelling: If you rolled or tweaked a joint, and it is inflamed, a doc might make small projections off the anchor point of the tape (so it looks like an octopus) and lay it with no stretch over the swollen area, Lou says.
What kind of KT tape should you use?
There are plenty of kinesiology tape options out there, and what you use tends to be a matter of personal preference. One good rule of thumb: Synthetic tapes tend to be more supportive over longer periods (think: a marathon), while cotton tapes are softer and a little less supportive.
Whichever one you go with, make sure to wipe the area you’re going to tape with alcohol before applying to remove dirt or grit that could mess with the adherence. And when you take it off, “don’t rip it off like an adhesive bandage, which can leave a scar,” Scantlebury says. “Instead, push the skin away from the tape instead of peeling the tape from the skin.”