From the navel patch to the suction cups: the ‘magufo’ nonsense to improve performance in the Olympic Games

We all have some mania and the athletes who have attended the Olympic Games in Tokyo (Japan) are no different. But we are not talking about checking that we have closed the front door several times or going out onto the playing field with the right leg, but about the use of certain techniques or pseudo-therapies to purportedly improve your athletic performance.

In the last 20-kilometer women’s walk test held on August 6, we were able to observe how several runners they had covered her navel with a patch. In the TVE broadcast, the former athlete María Vasco explained why in a class of pseudo-therapies without scientific basis that would scare the most painted.

She indicated that the navel “is the first energy center”, “it is like the generator of electricity”, “it is the place where respiration originates”, “underneath they can carry an energy stone”, or that she herself had competed with a red energy stone, thus promoting pseudo-therapies such as chromotherapy. Y It is not the first time that this type of comments in favor of pseudo-therapies have sneaked in in a sports broadcast. Years ago, former cyclist Alberto Contador did physical therapy a disservice.

Supposedly, by covering the navel with a patch or tape, the runners avoid losing energy, so, Couldn’t it be a form of doping? What medicine confirms is that the navel is the union of the fetus with the umbilical cord, the conduit through which nutrients pass from the mother to the fetus, but once it is cut at birth, the navel loses this function.

Other examples of pseudotherapies

The use of pseudo-therapies that, in some cases, could be considered a type of amulet is not an isolated event. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games (Brazil), when Michael Phelps made his Olympic swimming pool debut, onlookers noticed something unusual about the swimmer. His back and shoulders were covered in perfectly rounded purple bruises.

In view of the good results that it might seem that this “technique” was giving, they have been more the athletes who have joined this trend, as for example the also American Alex Naddour, member of the artistic gymnastics team of the United States, also in Rio de Janeiro.

Other athletes from different countries have tried these practices, such as the swimmer from Belarus Pavel Sankovichya, who wrote on his Instagram account: “Cupping therapy, a great recovery tool”, accompanying this phrase with a photo of her thighs covered with suction cups.

This cupping therapy from the application of cupping is a form of ancient Chinese medicine with which it was intended to treat pain, including athletic pain, therefore, it is a form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin, but without scientific basis.

Thus, proponents of this technique claim that the stretching or contraction of the skin produced by the suction cups increases blood flow, which can start or restart a dull healing response. Something that is false because, so far, cupping massage has not shown scientific evidence that prove their effectiveness.

In fact, there are other sports recovery methods in which the efficacy or absence of it has been assessed with the scientific method, for example, cold water immersion and contrast water therapy for team sports, the massage, electrical muscle stimulation, or the use of foam rolling for professional footballers.

But they are not the only techniques that we can find in sport. Pseudoscientific techniques such as chiropractic or osteopathy creeps into the rooms of some physiotherapists, but also homeopathy, acupuncture or the well-known colored bands or kinesiotape make a presence in the changing rooms.

The Chinese tale of energies, chakras and other nonsensical beliefs are just one example of how the north is sometimes lost in the development of sport at the highest level.

Manias or attempt to dope?

In some of the above cases the athlete achieve a great success or several sporting successes continued over time, which some people, younger athletes or amateurs, could interpret as that these athletes, by wearing a stone in their navel, which in turn is covered with adhesive tape, would perform better and be the reason for their successes. That is, they try to replicate pseudoscientific techniques that will not affect their sports results in any way, but that could be negative for their health.

Well, once again, correlation does not imply causality, that is, the fact that two events occur consecutively does not imply that one is the cause of the other. Thus, when it rains it is more likely to thunder, but it is not the rain that causes the thunder. The same happens with the practice of cupping therapy or energy stonesThey are actions that may be close to a sporting triumph, but that have nothing to do with achieving this success.

In these cases we are talking about pseudosciences and pseudodoping sports. But, due to the fame of these athletes and the great successes achieved by them in the Olympic Games, they could encourage some unwary to repeat pseudoscientific techniques that they will not lead them to achieve any sporting goals and yes, they will probably provide huge benefits to those who promote or sell these types of false remedies.

Dangerous pseudotherapies

We must be alert because, far from being innocuous techniques or beliefs that will not have more effect than placebo, in many cases these pseudotherapies are dangerous. In Spain, for example, For several years, the Ministries of Health, Consumption and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities threw the #WithTest plan to comprehensively protect citizens from pseudotherapies. They identified more than 130 techniques of which more than half have not even been rigorously studied and, therefore, there is no scientific evidence of their possible effects.

On the other hand, it has been shown that the effects are not always the desired ones, since some techniques interfere with medical treatments, in some cases, they delay the patient going to a doctor to treat their ailment, wasting time that, in some cases, can be vital or, even worse, leads to the refusal or abandonment of a medical treatment that could save their life. We can think about how these false techniques or remedies could affect the performance or health of an athlete.

The phrases of María Vasco not only did not question these false beliefsInstead, they tried to endorse them, giving certain publicity to techniques without any scientific basis on public television, which should ensure rigor in their content. Currently there is talk of cupping massage or energy stones, but in the future new actions or pseudoscientific therapies based on false or unreliable sports myths could appear.

Perhaps it would be positive if, in the sports broadcasts, in addition to a sports communicator / journalist and a former athlete who can share experiences of their sports career and provide practical knowledge, a sports performance researcher who can provide solid supported arguments joins by scientific evidence.

To refute these false beliefs or myths in sports We have at our service the Sports Sciences, which plan, analyze training loads, evaluate cognitive and physical fatigue (with instruments such as GPS, heart rate monitors, etc.), analyze tactics objectively with the help of new computer programs, etc.

More and more serious professionals, both athletes and their trainers, who they reject this type of technique as ridiculous, for having no scientific basis or for being mere superstitions.

It is in Science (Physiology, Biomechanics, Psychology, Medicine, Pedagogy and sports training, etc.) on which we must base ourselves if we want to achieve sports improvements in any context of practice, be it recreational, educational or healthy, or in the high sports performance, and not letting this type of practice or comments in the media make us fall into these potentially dangerous pseudo-therapies. So we still have a lot of awareness-raising work to do.

* This article was originally published on The Conversation.

** Sixto González is professor of Didactics of Physical Education and Sports, University of Castilla-La Mancha.

** Alberto Nájera is a contracted professor of Radiology and Physical Medicine, University of Castilla-La Mancha.

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