When the greatest athletes from around the world–following the most cutting-edge and varied training and recovery methods in existence–come together, expect revelations. If it was cups in Rio, it is blood-flow restricting bands in Tokyo.

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By Rutvick Mehta, New Delhi

PUBLISHED ON JUL 21, 2021 10:55 PM IST

Remember the large rings on the body of Michael Phelps at the 2016 Rio Olympics, those purple marks across his back and shoulder that grabbed as much attention as the gold around his neck? It resulted from a traditional Chinese technique called “cupping”, which became a worldwide rage when Phelps and the US swimming and gymnastics contingents revealed that they use it to loosen the tension in the muscles.

When the greatest athletes from around the world–following the most cutting-edge and varied training and recovery methods in existence–come together, expect revelations. If it was cups in Rio, it is blood-flow restricting bands in Tokyo.

Seen at the practice sessions of American swimmer Michael Andrew and long-distance runner Galen Rupp in Tokyo—bands wrapped around the upper portion of the legs. It’s done for a practice called Blood Flow Restriction (BFR), which cuts off blood flow to specific muscles periodically. It is believed to stimulate those muscles in a way that tricks the brain to enhance both strength gain and recovery.

Incidentally, the technique that is making its presence felt in Tokyo, began in Japan. Most of these bands are used from a popular line of products called Kaatsu, which were first envisioned by Japanese power lifter Yoshiaki Sato in 1966. The story goes that Sato’s legs felt numb while sitting on the floor in a traditional Japanese posture due to a shortage of blood circulation. He then went into self-experimentation mode, trying out bicycle tubes, ropes and bands of various shapes and sizes to create varied pressure on different parts of his body. The eureka moment came in 1973, when he treated his fractured ankle and injured knee by repeatedly applying pressure on and off while doing isometric exercises.

The blood flow restriction technique, and indeed the Kaatsu bands, has made global inroads since. It is especially popular among some of the top-level American athletes, from 22-year-old Andrew—the 2016 World Championships gold medallist in 100m medley—to Laura Wilkinson, a three-time Olympic diver who won gold at the 2000 Sydney Games. US footballer Josh Saunders credited the technique for helping him get through rehab from a fatal career-threatening bone infection.

Andrew, who will compete in the 50m freestyle, 100m breaststroke and 200m individual medley at the Tokyo Games, had his first tryst with the technique five years ago. Before and after his training and events, Andrew would wrap the belt around his leg and modulate the pressure to restrict blood flow at specific intervals. “Obviously, it’s very difficult,” Andrew was quoted by The New York Times. “But you are simulating a sensation of real pain that tricks the body into re-growth.”

A number of scientific journals have analysed the technique: “Overall, BFR training can be viewed as an emerging clinical modality to achieve physiological adaptations for individuals who cannot safely tolerate high muscular tension exercise or those who cannot produce volitional muscle activity,” a 2017 article published in the International Journal of Exercise Science stated.