The Herald today kicks off a new weekly series on sports science - the good, the bad and the questionable. We will put the science to the test and separate the hard facts from the mumbo jumbo of a multi-million-dollar industry.

It wasn't about money. Yes, glamorous goal shooter Maria Tutaia had a sponsorship arrangement with Aussie compression clothing brand 2XU. And, sure, with her torso and not insignificant limbs adorned with a bedazzling array of snug garments, she looked like a mobile mannequin for much of the Mystics' ANZ Championship season. But she hadn't received any financial gain. Tutaia was adamant about that.

So what did she get out of it? The main benefit, she said during a television interview, was medicinal. She suffered from the painful, chronic heel condition plantar fasciitis. Her compression socks helped heal her heel by, "er, helping the blood flow".


Almost certainly not, says Auckland Sports Podiatrist Cameron Palmer, a man with a graduate diploma in sports medicine from Otago University and a wealth of experience in treating plantar fasciitis.


The good, the bad and the questionable. In the first part of our new Herald series on sports science we put compression clothing to the test
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"From what I've seen it's absolute rubbish," says Palmer. "It's just a joke. There's no way on Earth that it is going to help. There is no science behind it at all."

Science - a word that speaks to empirical truth; unless, of course, it's teamed with the word sports. Truth is not always a casualty of sports science, but neither is it a necessity.

Tutaia declined to be interviewed for this piece. However, Netball New Zealand's lead medical adviser Sharon Kearney said the star shooter had followed an "evidence-based" approach in dealing with her fitness issues.

So just what is the evidence when it comes to compression clothing? Is it an effective recovery aid with the ability to reduce post-exercise soreness and even heal injuries, or simply an excuse for grown adults to wear full length tights in public?

Much of the published science on compression garments is conflicting and contradictory.

Jamie Hunt, co-founder of Australian manufacturer 2XU, says that is because all compression garments are not created equal. Some garments are simply tight-fitting. They don't actually boast graduated bands of compression to shift blood along - a technology developed to help inert and immobile patients avoid blood clots. "So if studies are done on these I am sure the results are conflicting," says Hunt.

He said via email that he believed 2XU's compression socks were effective in treating the plantar fasciitis.


His company isn't alone in suggesting its product can treat the condition. The website Plantar Fasciitis Resource provides a list of the seven best types of compression socks for sufferers to wear. It does, however, note: "There have not been many professional studies proving the efficacy of these plantar fasciitis socks in the reduction of pain or as a treatment option at all."

'Athletes are funny'

Michael Caine, a professor of sports technology and innovation who founded Loughborough University's Sports Tech Institute, believes the line between what is proven and what is not with compression clothing is drawn at the stimulation of blood flow as a means of reducing muscle soreness. Additional perceived benefits are probably due to proprioception - a Latin term that describes the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.

"So if you put compression around the joint it feels different and athletes appreciate the feedback."

Athletes appreciate it all right. Compression clothing has become mandatory for elite athletes and weekend warriors alike.

"Athletes are funny," says Caine. "If they believe something, it often becomes self-fulfilling. One of the known phenomena that sporting good manufacturers use is simply to put something out that they know feels good and looks great. The athletes will also make up perceived benefits and, at the point where they believe it, their performance improves."

So who needs proof? Well, there's a reason you don't see people wearing Power Balance Wrist Bands or Breathe Right Nasal Strips any more.

A Power Balance band.
A Power Balance band.

As the names suggests, Power Balance claimed their hologram-stickered rubber wrist bands improved athletic power and balance. They were endorsed by the likes of David Beckham and Kevin Pieterson and, as Herald sports journalist and Northern Premier League footballer Steve Holloway put it: "you couldn't walk on to a field a few years ago without half the numpties out there sporting the things".

Then this happened: "We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974," a statement issued by the company in January 2011 read.

Anyone who felt duped was offered a refund.

Breath Right strips were originally marketed as a means to stop snoring. But once legendary San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice started wearing and endorsing them they quickly became a sporting necessity. The fad lasted until testing revealed they had precisely zero effect on athletic performance and were in fact no different than a piece of big standard tape.

Nonsense, but harmless nonsense, right? Not so, says Caine. As belief erodes, performance declines.

"The wearer feels that they've been misled and then they lose their confidence and feel insecure about the choices they've made."

Kooky but real

So validation is vital to sports technology companies. Gaining it can be fraught for both the scientists and the company. That was evident when Canterbury of New Zealand revolutionised the sporting world by harnessing the power of negatively charged ions to create sportswear "scientifically proven" to increase the power output by 2.7 per cent.

IonX powered South Africa to the 2007 Rugby World Cup and English soccer club Portsmouth to an FA Cup victory. Breathless news reports declared that the Japanese had intuitively known about the power of ionic fields for centuries, which is why they like standing next to waterfalls. The Nazis were also on to it, apparently, placing bomber pilots in ionic chambers to help keep them awake.

It may have sounded a little kooky, but it was real.

"It's something we believe is delivering a tangible, positive effect on our players," Porstmouth's commercial director Paul Bell told the Daily Mail in 2007.

IonX's ability to tilt the playing field was such a concern that the IRB asked the World Anti Doping Authority to rule on whether the "wearable steroid" should be allowed. WADA gave the garments the green light and Canterbury did the decent thing, making its IonX range available to the general public.

IonX was everywhere. Then it was gone.

The emperors of the sports world may have been wearing flash clothes, but were they really magic?

Probably not.

Professor Caine was one of the authors of the research used to validate IonX. His work, he insists he told the handful of journalists who bothered to ask him in 2007 and reiterates to the Herald now, in no way proved the efficacy of IonX. It was a pilot study that should have been used as push-off point for more definitive research. The sample size (just 12 rugby players) was so small the results were statistically meaningless. Oh, and it was funded by Canterbury of New Zealand.

Caine chooses his words carefully - he still works with Canterbury and most other major sports tech companies - but he admits he was not comfortable with the way the company presented his research. "I was frustrated that Canterbury took a particularly proactive stance on the fact that one of the variables showed a small increase in a pilot study setting," he says.

The variable Canterbury seized on - a 2.7 per cent spike in power - was in fact proof of nothing more than the scientific certainty that statistical anomalies will occur when conducting lots of tests with small sample sizes.

"The more things you look for the more likely you are to find something that doesn't actually exist. That's just a fact," says Caine.

Follow-up research that could have proved whether the power spike was real was never done.

"Probably because Canterbury at the time got the effect they wanted," says Caine. "They got the media exposure and brand visibility. The risk for Canterbury to commission more work was that the work would demonstrate that there wasn't an effect."

Class action lawsuit

Unlike the benefits of IonX, that risk can be quantified. When sports tech companies overstep the mark in marketing a product the penalties can be severe. In 2011 footwear giant Reebok paid out US$25 million in customer refunds after being charged with deceptive advertising relating to its Easytone and Runtone range. The company claimed that pockets of moving air in the shoes and flip-flops created "micro instability" that toned and strengthened buttock muscles.

Pure arse, as it turned out.

Reebok claimed pockets of moving air in its Easytone shoes created
Reebok claimed pockets of moving air in its Easytone shoes created "micro instability" that toned buttock muscles, but had to pay millions in refunds. File photo / Getty Images

More recently Vibram, a company at the forefront of the minimalist running shoe revolution, coughed up US$3.75 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging the company's claim that its five finger footware reduced injuries and strengthened muscles was without scientific merit.

Multiple studies including this one found that the shoes increased the risk of muscle and bone injury.

So what of Canterbury and IonX? The iconic Kiwi company went broke in 2009, around two years after it introduced its game-changing kit. It passed into British hands and the brand survived. IonX didn't.

"It died away and I don't think you can buy that technology now," says Caine. "This was a very fad-like spike."

A Canterbury spokesman confirmed the IonX range had been discontinued for more than five years.

The company is still active in New Zealand, where it supplies the Warriors' NRL kit.
Warriors head of athletic performance, Balin Cupples, has never heard of IonX.

High-tech chimps

As it happens, the NRL club has recently changed its approach to sports science.
In March 2013, flush with a cash injection from wealthy new owner Sir Owen Glenn, the club proudly unveiled training facilities that included an altitude chamber and several pairs of cooling gloves. Designed at Stanford University, the US $1075 gloves had been used by the San Francisco 49ers in a superbowl, and were proven to reduce an athlete's core temperature. Players coming off for a break would be fresher, quicker.

Captain Simon Mannering struggles to contain his laughter when asked how the gloves were working out.

"Mate, what do you want me to say?" he chuckles.

Simon Mannering has seen it all when it comes to sports science. File photo / Getty Images
Simon Mannering has seen it all when it comes to sports science. File photo / Getty Images

Mannering doesn't need to say anything. It is common knowledge the gloves have been a bust. Expecting big, tough footy players to sit on the sidelines looking like high-tech chimps and then run on to the field and perform like gorillas was a disaster.

"They'd say they would cool you down but you'd run back out on the field and it would still be a stinking hot day in Townsville," shrugs Mannering.

Likewise, the expensive altitude chamber failed to find favour with the players.
"We've really simplified what we do in sports science," says Cupples. "It was probably going a bit overboard."

Breathing management apps and electro magnetic stimulation (EMS) units- athletic versions of tens machines commonly used for pain relief during labour - that were used during post-match recovery and travel have also been ditched.

Intended to create focus, improve relaxation and manage muscle stress, the gizmos had the opposite effect.

"It was going the other way," says Cupples. "It was creating fatigue."

Mannering has seen it all when it comes to sports science. He hated the altitude chamber because training with less oxygen to breathe made him "feel like s***".

After being pounded in over 200 NRL games and 41 test matches, his major concern is recovery. If something can help him get over his brutal physical workload and get back on the field then he's all for it. He's dabbled with using a hyperbaric chamber with encouraging results.

And, like Tutaia, Mannering swears by compression clothing. He even has a pair of inflatable compression pants.

"If it makes you feel better, why not?" he says. "And if you tell your body you feel better, you will feel better."