Elite athletes, weekend warriors and average gym joes alike are squeezing into knee-high socks and even figure-hugging bodysuits that promise to improve performance and recovery.
But with the domain of compression clothing awash with perplexing phrases and scientific claims such as anti-Odor technology', stimulate oxygen delivery' or anatomic fit' what, you may wonder, does it all mean? And, more importantly, can a piece of clothing make much difference?
It might be a stretch to say compression clothing will make you a better athlete, but the idea of performance improvement, muscle recovery and injury prevention can't be shunned, however. Here's what research has to say about the big squeeze.
Effect on performance
A study was conducted to examine the effects of external compression wear on the calf muscle energy consumption in short-term exercise, and the effects of compression on tissue oxygenation in moving muscles. The participants consisted of sixteen healthy male individuals, and each of them was asked to do calf raises standing in a normal position and raising heel to a maximum onto their toes before returning to normal stance. This exercise was performed 4 times per minute.
All participants underwent two trials: one with compression on both feet and one without compression. The results of the study found the compression condition with 24% higher Tissue Oxygen Index compared to the non-compressed condition, indicating the former plays an important role for tissue oxygenation.
How does this affect your performance? The idea is that because of increased oxygen and blood delivery to the muscles, by-products, which cause fatigue, can be flushed out quicker, increasing the wearer's performance.
Performance improvement sometimes extends beyond time. For individuals who have experienced lower limb injuries, compression wear can act as a security blanket and allow activity. An accountant training for Ironman Lauren Riley said that after having knee surgery to replace the torn ligaments in her knee, wearing compression during exercise gives her reassurance that everything stays in place and aligned.
Effect on recovery
Compression calf socks, tanks and sleeves for men and women arguably has the most scientific backing when it comes to promoting recovery. The gear can be worn comfortably and discreetly under clothing to reduce lactic acid production and improve oxygen delivery to the muscles.
A 2007 research study, published in the Journal of Sports Science, showed males wearing compression experienced less delayed-onset muscle soreness 24 hours after 10K time-trial runs. And a 2009 research study, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, revealed that subjects doing jumping and sprint tests experienced less muscle soreness after training.
Lower leg compression wear such as compression socks are also believed to transport greater amount of blood deep into the calf muscle pumps and the legs, allowing for less soreness, pooling and swelling and less lactic acid production.
The potential benefits extend to include increase muscle response, improved posture and form when these garments are worn on other body parts. Some athletes have also been wearing them during sleep; it's more than the mindset to these garments. If you can recover quicker you can train better.
Effect on sport injury risk
Every time your muscles undergo movement, they are prone to tiny tears inside the muscle tissue. With compression and extra support, muscles move to a less extent. This reduces the micro damage that can occur on impact, and reduces muscle soreness and pain both during and post exercise, as well. The clothing may also help to prevent and alleviate injuries suffered from uncontrolled, sudden movements, which form the basis of exercise.
A research cited by biological conclusions says through measuring markers of muscle activity breakdown, researchers were able to if compression garments could reduce muscle damage while exercising. The garments, interestingly, were found to reduce muscle damage occurrence for the wearer while exercising, and afterwards.
The positive effects associated with compression garments vary from study to study; some reports tout large effects while others reveal modest effects. The underlying theme, however, was that compression wear was, at best, useful for muscle recovery, blood circulation, injury prevention and swelling, and at worst, was ineffective. The clothing didn’t hamper athletic performance in any aspect.
To sum it up, compression gear has legitimate benefits, some backed by research studies, some from positive experiences. And to a degree, if there are no negative effects as long as it's not too tight to squeeze in, or irritating then compression gear can give you an edge.