Whether or not you've ever sported tape, you've definitely seen ankle taping in action. You're watching a professional game or Olympic event, an athlete takes off their cleats, and there they are—two ankles fully bandaged in a white athletic tape wrap. And here's the thing: There's no apparent foot injury or ankle sprain.
Athletic taping—literally wrapping adhesive tape around a joint—is a common and potentially effective tactic to limit the risk of foot and ankle injury, says Gregory Waryasz, MD, CSCS, a sports medicine physician at Mass General Brigham and foot and ankle orthopaedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Here's everything you need to know about how athletic taping can help prevent ankle sprain and foot injury.
How Taping Works
While ankle taping won't actually "fix" underlying joint issues (like chronic instability, tendinopathies, etc.), it still can help lower the risk of foot injuries by offering support and stabilization.
"Think of tape as like a more mobile version of a boot, cast or brace. Sprains usually strike when a joint goes into excessive range of motion, stretching the ligaments beyond their capacity. Taping attempts to prevent your joint from going into these risky ranges of motion."
Athletic taping primarily works by keeping your joint from moving too far in any one direction. Think of tape as a more mobile version of a boot, cast or brace. Sprains usually strike when a joint goes into excessive range of motion, stretching the ligaments beyond their capacity. Taping attempts to prevent your joint from going into these risky ranges of motion.
Because ankle joints are particularly vulnerable to injury, they are the most common areas that trainers and physical therapists tape on athletes.
Even as relatively small joints, your ankles do a tremendous amount of work supporting your entire body weight and propelling your body in whatever direction you need to go. Because they're such mobile joints, it can be easy for them to twist and turn just a little too far, resulting in sprains and strains.
Increasing proprioception, your ability to sense your body's position in any given environment, may also play a role. Proprioception is sometimes called the "sixth sense." For example, quickly changing directions and sprinting across an uneven grass field in soccer requires a certain degree of proprioception to avoid falling or injury. By enhancing this sense, you can improve balance and help better control your feet and ankles during sport activity.
Some types of taping also add compression to the joint to reduce swelling following an ankle or foot injury and lower the risk of reinjury.
Types of Taping
There are many different types of athletic taping, but there are two main categories:
- Inelastic: Inelastic or rigid tape is a white tape, often called McConnell tape, that makes the ankle less mobile under whatever sneaker or cleat you're wearing for your sport. This is one of the more historic taping techniques used and it provides the most compression and stability for the joint
- Elastic: Elastic tape has some stretch to it. People sometimes call it "kinesio taping." Rather than wrapping around the joint, the strips sit flat on the skin's surface in different arrangements. While you slightly stretch the tape before pressing it to your skin, it doesn't compress the area
Many athletes find elastic taping more comfortable and easier to move as compared with inelastic taping.
Still, it appears to provide benefits. Studies comparing the different types of taping have found that elastic taping resulted in a lower rate of ankle inversion compared with inelastic taping.
Three Steps for Effective Ankle Taping
For the best tape job, talk to your sports medicine physician, athletic trainer or physical therapist. They can do it for you or even give you a quick, expert tutorial so you can wrap in confidence. But to get you started, keep these strategies in mind:
- Get the ankle in the right position: Before applying the athletic tape, move your ankle into a somewhat dorsiflexed (toes up towards face) position. Try to keep it there throughout the entire taping process
- Use pre-wrap as a base layer: A thin foam, pre-wrap can make athletic taping a smoother process—especially for athletes with leg hair or sensitive skin. The pre-wrap acts as a barrier between the tape and your skin
- Tape tight, but not too tight: You want your taping to give serious support, but it should never limit your ability to jump, cut, run or be explosive. It should also never limit blood flow to your foot
Once you have the tape on, squeeze each individual toe. When you let go, your normal skin color should quickly return. If it doesn't, loosen things up.