A lot has been said about the benefits of compression garments (largely by the manufacturers). For example Asics compression gear will make your “run further” and “recover faster”, and Under Armor gear is “not just for looks. These things make you better”
If you’ve ever pulled on a pair of compression tights, you’ll know they do make you feel kind of “good”. They seem to get your muscles ready for action. Perhaps that has something to do with the amount of effort it takes to actually get the things on!
Compression gear amounts to more than just an ordinary pair of lycra tights. They are made with tighter elastic, which for starters, mean they hold their shape better over time. Most compression tights will also deliver graduated pressure – they are tighter around the ankles and the knee, which helps to improve circulation from the calf.
What started the compression trend?
It’s probable the idea of wearing compression gear for improved sporting performance started in 2001. NBA player, Allen Iverson had a big game when he was wearing a compression sleeve which was being used to treat bursitis in his elbow. There’s no evidence that the sleeve made any physical contribution to the player’s performance, but as often happens in these situations, other players followed suit, and the compression garment industry was born.
Will compression gear actually make you run faster?
The theory is that compression garments increase blood circulation which helps to deliver more oxygen to your muscles whilst improving the removal of metabolic wastes which are the by-product of physical activity. This then enables you to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at the very least run a bit faster, and recover from exercise more quickly.
Most studies agree that athletes experience improved blood flow through their muscles when wearing compression gear. But when it comes to improvements in performance, the results are a bit more ambiguous.
There are some studies which suggest lower limb compression garments “may” be of benefit in improving performance in more explosive events which require movements such as jumping, and may be of less benefit in endurance events.
Interestingly, recent research is showing this improved blood flow may have an effect on your cognitive ability, so in sports where decision make plays a big role such as cycling, soccer, rugby, hockey), compression gear may make a real difference, however more research needs to be done in this area.
The placebo effect
It’s very difficult to account for the placebo effect with compression garments. Anyone who has ever worn a true compression garment will know there’s no fooling yourself into thinking you’re wearing the real McCoy, if what you’re actually wearing is the latest lycra tight from Big W. So, having a control group who actually believe they may be wearing compression gear is highly unlikely. In the real world however, it doesn’t really matter if improved performance is a result of a placebo effect does it?
Effect of compression gear on recovery
One area where compression tights do appear to come into their own is during recovery. One study on rugby players found a reduction in muscle soreness when the players wore the compression garments for a full 24 hours immediately following their exercise bout. Another study amongst weight lifters found similar results when full body compression garments were worn for more than a day following a bout of exercise. (It all sound decidedly lacking in hygiene!)
When it comes to recovery, compression gear can have a real benefit, if worn for 24 hours post event, but if you’re looking to boost your performance substantially, you’re better off relying on a smart training plan than on a pair of compression tights. You’re unlikely to see an improvement in performance simply as a result of the physiological effects the tights have on your performance whilst running.
Given you have to wear something when you’re running, why not go for compression? They hold their shape better than your common everyday garden variety lycra, and are more likely to hold bits in which you’d rather didn’t hang out.
(And gentlemen… please realise tights leave absolutely nothing to the imagination and can be extremely un-nerving)