Short-Term Strength Recovery
The first type of recovery deals with the muscle fatigue athletes experience throughout a workout.
This can be described as the burn you feel at the end of a strength training set or the middle of a run. This pain is typically short-lived and fades within a few minutes of stopping the activity.
While not debilitating, muscle burn can stall a work out and keep you from reaching your goals. This type of pain is caused by the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. While there is a lot of complicated science behind why this happens, the most basic explanation revolves around energy production.
Under normal circumstances, we generate energy by pumping oxygen throughout our bodies. During a strenuous workout, however, we tend to burn through energy faster than our bodies can deliver the required oxygen to our muscles. To keep us moving, our muscles produce lactate, or lactic acid, to keep the energy flowing while our oxygen catches up.
To prevent serious muscle damage, this secondary energy production only works for a few minutes before we’re forced to take a break. While lactic acid can keep you moving through those last few reps, the side effect is increased acidity of the muscle cells, causing the familiar burn we feel upon overexertion. Once we slow down or stop, oxygen replaces lactate and the pain subsides.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
The second and more debilitating type of muscle pain is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is the all too familiar pain that comes on one or two days after a new or difficult workout and can last as many as five days.
While many blame lactic acid build up for this type of pain as well, it’s actually not the culprit. Instead, DOMS is caused by swelling in the muscles. During a difficult workout, our muscles often experience microscopic tears.
These tears are thought to be a catalyst in muscle growth and strengthening, but in the short term they can cause a great deal of pain. Following this type of damage, white blood cells, nutrients, and other anti-inflammatory agents rush to the muscles to repair them. Over the first few days after a workout, this influx causes swelling that results in sore, stiff muscles.
There are several different options when it comes to treating or preventing muscle pain during or after workouts. Many swear by proper stretching, warmups, and cooldowns. Others use pain relievers like NSAIDs before or after a workout to limit inflammation. Runners and other athletes often use ice baths right after workouts to prevent swelling, while still others get regular massages. In recent years, a simple, inexpensive, and effective method of preventing muscle fatigue and pain has gained in popularity: compression.
The Role of Compression in Workout Recovery
The cornerstone of compression is the way it affects blood circulation.
Graduated compression is used in the medical community to help keep blood flowing effectively from the limbs back to the heart. This can reduce swelling, treat varicose veins, and prevent blood clots. Because exercise and physical exertion require fast and efficient blood flow to keep muscles oxygenated and promote healing, compression gear has exploded in the world of athleticwear.
Athleticwear companies and the athletes they outfit make strong claims about the benefits of compression gear in both performance and recovery. However, only one of these claims has science to back it up. When it comes to workout recovery, evidence continues to mount regarding the benefits of compression.
These benefits apply to both muscle pain and weakness caused by lactic acid build up during workouts and delayed onset muscle soreness and weakness in the post-workout period.
In terms of lactic acid reduction, several studies have observed this phenomenon:
- As early as 1987, a study of several highly fit men wearing compression stockings following a bicycle ergometer test showed significantly reduced blood lactate levels as compared to those in the control group.
- This study was repeated in 2004 with 12 older men. Each completely two five minute sessions in which they exerted maximum effort on a bicycle ergometer. After the first session, one group wore compression stockings during an 80-minute recovery period. While both groups showed a decrease in maximum power during the second session, the compression group’s decrease was significantly less and their lactate levels were significantly lower than the control group.
- A 2014 study found that participants wearing compression gear had lower blood lactate levels at the one-minute recovery mark than those not wearing compression.
Beyond this specific benefit, studies have also been conducted to observe the benefits of compression in preserving muscle strength during workouts and reducing DOMS during longer-term recovery:
- A 2007 study conducted in New Zealand observed that a test group who wore compression tights to complete a 10 km road run experienced less muscle soreness in the post-run period than the control group who did not wear compression gear during their run.
- A 2011 study found that among a group of runners wearing varying levels of compression, those who wore medium and low compression socks during a 10km run were able to preserve their explosive muscle power during the run as compared to those without compression.
- A 2019 study discovered that when compression tights were worn on a consistent, prescribed schedule over 96 hours following lower extremity resistance training, participants experienced a noticeably faster return of muscle strength compared to the group who did not use compression.
It is clear that the recovery benefits of compression clothing are significant. Beyond feeling better, the ability to retain muscle strength and reduce pain can easily translate into improved performance, particularly for athletes who need to perform at high levels on a regular basis.
From Olympic runners to NBA players, the use of compression gear to consistently keep their bodies strong can have a big impact on their performance over time. The same benefits can be enjoyed by a novice runner training for a 5k or a first-time gym-goer who experiences less pain and is, thus, more encouraged to keep showing up for workouts.