Roll the tape: What KT Tape taught me about muscles, magnesium, and my limitations

Tony Ware

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It was nearing the peak of PorcUclimb, right before Downward Dog, when I came up with what I was sure was a career-defining concept: Ware ’N Tear’s Salve for Wounded Pride. Here I was fat biking along the groomed singletrack of Round Valley on a perfect bluebird day in early March and I was just gassed, totally holding back our small guided group of snow cyclists. Coming off a recent illness, my altitude-ravaged lungs just couldn’t deliver what my legs demanded. 

I quickly turned to my fellow rider, KT CEO Jessica Klodnicki, and asked if R&D could get started on what could be my legacy. The chances are less than zero, I was quickly told, but that didn’t mean there weren’t plentiful new recovery products to discover. After all, that’s why I was in Park City, Utah, just up the road from American Fork and the headquarters of the brand synonymous with kinesiology tape and its growing KT Ice and KT Health portfolio.

how it started … how it’s going KT Tape

Prepare

Maybe you’re an elite athlete. If so, chances are you’ve used KT Tape. Maybe you’ve seen elite athletes. If so, chances are you’ve seen strips of elastic KT Tape crisscrossing an elbow, knee, shoulder, etc. Maybe you’re sitting at a desk reading this in between emails and trips to the coffee station. If so, chances are you’re wondering if KT products can benefit everybody and every body, not just Olympians and other elevated competitors. Before my trip to Utah, I was firmly in that last group. I knew the brand because, with over 80 percent market share in the taping category and a big, bright logo, KT is hard to miss even if you’ve just dabbled in couch-to-5k programs and ended up limping through CVS aisles searching for muscle soreness relief.

Just because I had seen KT Tape, however, didn’t mean I had tried KT Tape. I honestly never even glanced at it because I wasn’t Athletic—emphasis on that capital A. Sure, I stay active, biking and hiking, but I was a little too quick to let muscle soreness convince me to slow down, or maybe grind to a complete stop. I hadn’t really considered the potential benefits of gentle support, modulating pain signals, and promoting blood flow and lymphatic drainage for swelling relief that could come from kinesiology tape. Sure, I knew the R.I.C.E. method of dealing with obvious inflammation—rest, ice, compression, and elevation—but I didn’t think enough about how to lessen the chance of overuse aches or even microtraumas in the first place. I didn’t know as much about how to aid working out as I did how to react when things don’t work out.

So here I was at 7,000 feet elevation—6,700 feet higher than back home on the East Coast, give or take a few—ready to reevaluate my approach to activity. And to test a therapeutic routine, you need to put some muscles to work. That’s why KT brought a small group of journalists to this mountain town known for winter sports—a high desert covered in deep powder thanks to lake effect storms. That’s how I ended up embarrassing myself on a bike. But the shame of crapping out on the cord wasn’t the only thing leaving me feeling tingly.

Perform

Much like my typical delayed onset muscle soreness, KT’s reveals built up gradually. And our first introduction, prior to carving some corners, was to the new KT Health magnesium creams—KT Health Activate, specifically. Magnesium cream isn’t new—just ask anyone with restless leg syndrome. But KT Health Activate has worked with a local Utah partner on a cream that combines magnesium with Arnica—as well as skin-friendly aloe, vitamin-e, shea butter, and jojoba oil—to provide multiple benefits. 

According to Dr. Erin Hassler, a member of the KT Sports Medicine Advisory Board who led our presentations on the physiological impact of the products, magnesium is the counterbalance to calcium in the tug-of-war that is muscle contractions. Whereas calcium activates muscle, magnesium relaxes it. Applying magnesium cream prior to exercise loosens the muscles, reducing stiffness and, hopefully, injuries. Adding in Arnica is an additional prophylactic tactic, creating a warming sensation and promoting opioid receptor activity to make you feel better about your gains and pains. 

And it certainly worked. Still feeling the long flight in my lower back, I applied some KT Health Activate to the base of my spine prior to our ride (10-20 minutes before activity is recommended). Sure, it was a “warm” day in the low- to mid-30s and we were doing high-output activity, but we were barely into the course before I was striping down almost to my Arc’Teryx Rho Merino wool crew neck because I was primed (and more than a little afraid sweat would trickle some of the cream into a precarious crevice). And while my lungs could have used some soothing going up the trail, my lower back felt great as I eventually caught my breath and ripped the descent. 

My upper back, on the other hand, hasn’t felt great since I was first introduced to personal computing in the early ’90s. Luckily, a second product was unveiled once we returned to the hotel: KT Tape Pro Ice. This new addition infuses Menthol into the established KT Tape Pro adhesive, appealing to consumers who use pain relief patches but find that they bunch or peel or just don’t work well on joints, etc. 

As we’ve established, however, I’d never used KT Tape despite the company’s retail dominance since it launched in 2008. So I wasn’t sure how to apply it. Yes, KT has created a mobile app with guided instructions on anchoring and angles for any anatomy. But, since the team was already there, they invited everyone to identify a problem area and someone would address it for us. Citing my laptop hunch, I had strips put on my neck and across my shoulders and, in a relatively short time, started to experience pain relief, or an excellent approximation of it. What Menthol does, among other things, is create the illusion of cooling by activating the thermoreceptor that senses cold. Triggering ole TRPM8, in turn, activates vasoconstriction—like icing without the ice—and decreases pain receptor sensations. All the while the tape helps open up that dermis and move any prior fluid build-up along.

Much like with the KT Health Activate cream, it wasn’t long before I felt the KT Tape Pro Ice in action—a relief response that gradually faded during some hotel room downtime. What was even more surprising, however, was that the tape reactivated later that evening. Dinner took place in a yurt located at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway, the “Little Switzerland” of Utah. To access the yurt, however, you had to snowshoe a half-mile. And that exertion reacted with the tape, cooling me down and firing my opioid receptors up. Maybe it was the rich food and robust pairings from Parallel Wines or maybe it was the Menthol and stretchy support, but I slept well that night. 

Recover

I woke up the next morning with very little residual tenderness, which was good because it was time for two more products and one more test. First, there was KT Health Recover magnesium cream, which swaps the Arnica for Menthol, pre-workout application for post-workout (after your shower, or you’ll wash it all away). But it still energizes nerve endings in its own way. Compared to the KT Tape Pro Ice, I felt less immediate stimulation (YMMV, as it comes down to skin type), but there’s just something about the smell of Menthol that I find appealing and appeasing (and that makes me put on some old skool breakbeat hardcore). Plus, the cream can go where KT Tape Pro Ice can’t—i.e., where there is body hair—just don’t combine the two, as the cream will make the tape less adhesive.

The other new introduction in the KT Health line was the new Ice Sleeve. If you’ve ever entertained exercising, even briefly, you’ve surely dedicated some space in your freezer to ice packs. And you’ve surely grabbed one of those stiff packets, wrapped it in a ratty dish rag, and awkwardly balanced it on some sore appendage propped up on a pillow. The KT Health Ice Sleeve aims to mitigate the swelling and cursing that comes from activity and subpar ice therapy.

Wrapped in microfiber, the water-based glycol gel in the infinitely reusable Ice Sleeve remains pliant even when frozen, making it perfect for 360 degrees of cold compression of ankles, knees, and elbows (potentially even thighs if using the XXL size). There’s no condensation, and 20 minutes or so of cold it gives off lines up with the medically recommended application on joints and tendons. Plus it stores neatly in its insulated portable pouch, a lil localized ice bath that doesn’t confine you to the couch.

As for that last test, it was my Real Housewives of Salt Lake City [Season 2, Ep. 14] moment, according to a coworker who watches the show. Sold as a final recovery activity but really its own core-strength challenge to maintain balance, we participated in stand-up paddle board yoga on the Homestead Crater hot spring. Here I was 24 hours later, yet thinking again about breath control and settling into a Downward Dog, my muscles warm as I tackled another activity that became easier over time. I may not have left Utah with a future in designing recovery products for the recreational athlete. Still, I can now see how KT products and I have a future together whether I’m hunched over a computer, handlebars, a yoga mat, etc. 

keep telling yourself you got this, dawg … try hard enough and you can be just like that lady above KT Tape