With all the hype surrounding compression gear, it’s easy to wonder if it’s worth it. Top of the line compression clothing can be expensive, so it’s essential to understand exactly what you’re paying for before making a purchase.
Origin of Compression Gear
Compression garments have been used in the medical community for more than 60 years to promote blood circulation and help treat a variety of vascular issues and post-surgical complications. They have been used to prevent blood clots, reduce chronic swelling and lymphedema, and manage the symptoms of painful varicose veins.
Because of these positive results, in recent decades more attention has been given to the non-medical applications of compression, namely as fitness and athletic gear. In this arena, compression gear has been observed to reduce lactic acid levels, increased muscle stability, and improve recovery time.
The Science Behind Compression Gear
The cornerstone of compression is the way it affects blood circulation. Blood is circulated through our bodies by our arteries and veins. First, the arteries pump oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the extremities, where our cells utilize oxygen and nutrients. Then, deoxygenated blood and waste products are carried back to the heart through the veins to be reoxygenated by the lungs, and the process begins again. Compression gear provides a simple, affordable, and non-invasive way to increase blood circulation through the body.
While only a few significant studies exist regarding the athletic benefits of compression gear, there is some evidence available to judge its effectiveness in this realm.
Most athletes who use compression gear are looking for improvements in overall performance. Compression clothing boasts many benefits like increased muscle stability, speed, and agility. Most studies that have sought to prove these claims have been inconclusive or shown no significant changes between the group wearing compression and the control group.
However, one study conducted in 2011 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. In this study, each group completed a vertical leap test before and after running. The compression groups were able to increase their jump post-run.
While this study showed no marked difference in running performance, heart rate, or lactate accumulation, it highlighted the potential recovery benefits of compression gear.
Beyond the study mentioned above, a handful of additional experiments have been conducted regarding the recovery benefits of compression gear. These studies have explored several different factors related to recovery, and the positive effects compression has in these areas:
Muscle pain: A 2007 study conducted in Australia observed that a test group who wore compression tights to complete a 10 km road run experienced significantly less muscle soreness in the post-run period than the control group who did not wear compression gear during their race.
Strength: 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.
Lactate levels: 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.
Many researchers have noted that athletes both inside and outside of their controlled studies have claimed that compression gear improves their strength, speed, and endurance, even in the absence of concrete evidence to support these claims.
In large part, this is attributable to the placebo effect. Because it is impossible to conduct truly blind studies in which the compression group is unaware that they are wearing compression clothing, it has been challenging to produce scientifically reliable results. While this is unfortunate for scientists, many have noted that positive psychological benefits should not be dismissed.
Although athletic performance is primarily a physical pursuit, it is difficult to dismiss the powerful mental aspects. When athletes feel good, they perform better, and it appears that compression gear has become a powerful tool in this arena. Compression gear provides athletes of all stripes with increased comfort and confidence, which translates into better performance.
The Bottom Line
While compression gear is not the magic performance enhancer that it is sometimes claimed to be, it still provides a great deal of value to the fitness world. If compression tights make you feel stronger and faster than a pair of old sweatpants, you’re likely to perform better while wearing them. These results may not have the firm backing of the scientific community, but in the fitness world where mental strength can be just as powerful as physical strength, this matters.
The recovery benefits provided by compression gear are also 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 regularly. From Olympic runners to NBA players, the use of compression gear to consistently keep their bodies healthy can have a significant impact on their performance over time. The same benefits can be enjoyed by a novice runner training for a 5k or first-time gym-goers who experiences less pain and is, thus, more encouraged to keep showing up for workouts.
In the end, the decision to use compression gear is up to each person depending on their personal fitness needs and goals. One thing that the scientific community does agree on is that there are no perceived detriments to using low and medium compression during and after athletic activities. For this reason, those looking to boost their comfort or speed their recovery have nothing to lose by giving compression gear a try.