Athletes have always had special ways of preparing for, and recovering from, competition. And elite athletes are no exception. (Witness the cupping craze that’s got Michael Phelps and other Olympians in Rio dotted with circular black and blue marks.)
Here’s a rundown of six other ways Olympic competitors hope to get an edge — and what science has to say about them.
Electrify the noggin
Athletes, including some of this year’s track and field Olympians, are putting on odd-looking headphones hoping that a noninvasive brain stimulation technique can improve their performance.
In transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, electrical currents are applied to the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp. The idea is that, depending on which part of the brain is stimulated, the currents can improve motor skills or reduce perception of fatigue.
So far, studies are showing only preliminary results, and the treatment is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But that hasn’t stopped athletes like the Golden State Warriors’s James Michael McAdoo, from trying it.
Slap on some cheese curd
Skier Lindsey Vonn caused a stir back in the 2010 Winter Olympics when she put cheese curds on her injured shin. The topfen cheese curd, sometimes called quark, was meant to ease swelling, Vonn told reporters. She went on to win gold and bronze medals.
Slathering cheese curds on injuries is not entirely unheard of — Austrian athletes have been known to do it — but it hasn’t been studied extensively, either. The most that food scientists can say is that if such poultices do relieve swelling, it could be because of the medium-chain triglycerides in cheese curds. But that’s really just a guess.
“The body does like these fats, which are like what is found in breast milk,” said Randy Evans, a registered dietitian at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “They are very easily absorbed.”
Soak up the mustard
If long days of training have left you aching and your teammates have used up all the cheese curds, you could always try a mustard bath. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin fills her tub with hot water, adds mustard seed powder and several essential oils, and settles in for a muscle-soothing soak. (If you’re too worn down to make your own concoction, you can buy ready-made versions.)
Dr. Benjamin Alman, professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke University Medical School, suggested that this may be a new version of an old therapy.
“In the old days, there was the mustard plaster, which we used for aches and injuries and all kinds of ailments,” he said. “And we know that spices were medicines for us for a long time, particularly the ones that help by creating heat.”
He added that while the spices may perhaps help, a hot bath would probably ease aches regardless of whether it contained mustard.
Inject some super-cells
Athletes hoping to stay in the game are now getting healthy tissue cells injected into their injured knees, backs, and other areas to reduce pain and inflammation or to help repair torn cartilage.
“These cells have some really interesting properties,” Alman said.
“When you get an injury, inflammation is part of the healing process,” he said. “Without inflammation, you won’t heal at all. But with too much inflammation, you might not heal as well. These cells may somehow keep it at the right level.”
The operative word here is “may.”
“None of this has been proven,” Alman said. “It’s all theoretical. But there’s no incentive to do a large-scale trial because people are just going to use it anyway. And if it works, more people will use it.”
Hop into an oxygen chamber
Yet another favorite tactic for athletes: stepping into what’s essentially a large can.
Hyperbaric chambers use high-pressure air to force pure oxygen into tissues. Hospitals use this kind of oxygen therapy to reverse decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning. But the procedure can also speed healing time for injuries. Facilities like the Mayo Clinic use it to accelerate wound healing in diabetics and those with severe burns or skin infections.
Athletes believe the chambers can do the same for muscles damaged through training and competition.
Swimmer Michael Phelps, New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings, and other athletes swear by these machines; some even have them at home.
Pack a whole buffet into one meal
Eating one’s way to victory remains a tradition. And the typical athlete’s diet is pretty much what you would expect: protein for strength, carbs for endurance, fruits and veggies for vitamins. What’s often unusual is the ways athletes go about getting these nutrients.
Take swimmer Eric Shanteau. He needs a pretty big bowl for his breakfast: It starts with a blend of three cereals — Shredded Wheat, Grape Nuts, and vanilla-almond clusters. He mixes in raisins, ground flax seed, walnuts, blueberries, raspberries, and a kiwi (skin on). He tops all that with almond milk and a cup of yogurt.
Beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser, meanwhile, whips up a shake of coconut milk, goji berries, cacao powder, flax seed, acai berries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, spinach, and kale.
How do nutritionists rate the concoctions? “Well, there’s tons of antioxidants, lots of healthy protein, and some healthy fat,” Evans said. “The big benefit is that it prevents these guys from needing to eat all day.”