NORMAL, Ill. - From football to swimming, athletes searching for a performance edge have taken to wearing little bandage-like nose strips to improve breathing.
But the only benefit may be to make the athletes look tough, according to studies at Illinois State. Breathe Right nasal strips do not improve physical performance, the studies concluded.
The studies measured the performance of people wearing a Breathe Right strip, a fake strip or nothing. One study even had people wear mouthpieces to mimic the conditions a football player would encounter.
All three studies produced the same conclusion: The nasal strips don't help.
"If people like them for aesthetic reasons, they're welcome to wear them," associate professor David Thomas, one of the researchers, said jokingly.
The strips are designed to hold the wearer's nostrils open to improve breathing, reducing congestion and snoring. They have been available since 1993.
Athletes soon began wearing them, and Minneapolis-based manufacturer CNS Inc. markets them as "essential gear for all sports."
The strips have spread to all levels of athletics, from pee-wee to pro.
The company says its product will reduce the amount of energy athletes use to breathe during heavy exercise.
"So redirect or save that energy for what's important ... your performance," says one Breathe Right brochure.
Despite such statements - and endorsements by pro football players, runners and even a race-car driver - the company says it does not promise to improve athletic performance.
"We don't make claims on performance because, frankly, we don't have enough studies to be able to make performance claims," CNS marketing specialist Chris Polster said. "Our claim is that it helps breathing. If that means something as far as performance, that's more of a personal matter than a scientific matter."
Polster said the company knew of one study suggesting Breathe Right may help athletes recover faster after exercise. The company is waiting for the results of many other studies, he said.
Independent researchers say the Illinois State studies probably are the most thorough look at Breathe Right strips.
Two studies looked at aerobic exercise by putting healthy test subjects on a stationary bicycle and measuring their breathing as they worked. The breathing measurements were conducted with the type of full-face masks used by firefighters, rather than smaller masks that rest on the nose and could interfere with results.
The third study measured the power of people performing anaerobic exercise - the kind of brief, high-intensity work involved in football games. Test subjects even wore mouthpieces as they pedaled so their breathing would resemble a football player's.
Bo Fernhall, an associate professor at the George Washington medical school, said the studies convince him that Breathe Right does not improve athletic performance.
"It doesn't make any sense that it would make a difference," Fernhall added. "When you're exercising, the majority of the air you're breathing comes through your mouth."