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Each year, new research helps prove the benefits of graduated compression clothes for sports performance and recovery. Up until now, much of the research focused on recovery and endurance activities, but recent studies are looking at a wider range of performance markers and activities. Here we explore what the latest science says about what compression can do for you.
This has been tested and proven again and again, with study subjects wearing compression garments immediately after exercise. Here’s how it works. Arteries have a muscular layer that allows them to squeeze and regulate blood pressure to move blood against gravity. Veins don’t have this muscular layer, they just have a series of one way valves. During exercise, muscular contractions help to move blood through the veins and back to the heart. When you sit still, these contractions don’t occur, but compression help the process. This is a big deal if you are flying or driving a long way after training or an event. Improving blood circulation provides more blood and oxygen to help reduce the markers of muscle damage more quickly.
One of the markers of muscle damage (usually in the form of soreness or stiffness) is lactate build-up in the muscles. A University of Calgary report quotes a study from Australia and New Zealand that looked at athletes doing repeats of 400m sprints, with each runner doing sprints in either full-leg compression tights, compression shorts with compression socks, or no compression clothing. Researchers isolated a trend towards a faster removal of lactic acid from the muscles and a reduced perceived effort when wearing the full-leg compression tights. The report noted that a handful of other sprint-studies returned similar results.
In longer events, muscle damage can set in during the event. Studies have shown reductions in the decrease in muscular strength or force capacity following exercise while wearing compression garments. This would seem to indicate that muscle damage may be lessened by wearing compression garments, which is put down to compression decreasing vibration or excess movement in the muscles.
It is notoriously difficult to replicate the conditions of long events (marathons, ultra-marathons, etc.) in lab conditions, but it’s not hard to see the potential benefits of reduced muscle damage during long events where muscle damage can become a primary limiter. For instance, wearing compression shorts or tights may reduce damage to the quad muscles during a hilly ultramarathon. The upshot of this is that you may then feel fine to run down hills late in the race, when you’d otherwise be forced to walk due to quad pain.
The thermoregulation benefits of compression clothes are frequently studied and well reported, but it’s another thing to experience them. My first time wearing compression tights was in a 100km (62.5 mile) trail race with a pack in the mountains – that’s right, I didn’t even train in them first. Temperatures ranged from 28°F to 65°F in blazing sunshine. The ability of the tights to regulate my body temperature was remarkable and due to the wicking ability of the fabric, I never felt too wet or too chilly, even when fog set in when sweat on bare skin may have remained there and caused me to cool too much.
It’s not all about comfort, there’s a simple performance benefit, too, as the reduction in skin blood flow would increase blood volume in the working muscles. This means compression could especially serve as an ergogenic aid in performance in cold conditions.
Compression clothing can help your running efficiency at competition pace, according to a Spanish study that looked at athletes doing four bouts of six minutes running at a recent half-marathon pace, before doing a time limit test at 105% of a recent 10km pace. Two groups were matched by their VO2max, with one group wearing graded compression shorts and the other group wearing loose shorts. The compression shorts group reached a lower percentage of maximum heart rate compared with the control group, they had better times to fatigue (337 vs. 387 seconds) and they had a lower VO2 peak.
A 2014 study found that trained men had a faster recovery of their one-repetition maximum for the chest press when they wore compression shirts after training – it went down from eight hours to three hours. This study was significant, as the vast bulk of studies on compression gear focus on lower body and the use of tights. The compression shirts were also associated with lower muscle soreness and subjective fatigue scores the morning after the trial.
A concluding point made in a 2013 review of research on compression clothing, Bringing Light Into the Dark: Effects of Compression Clothing on Performance and Recovery, stressed that studies on compression gear tended to be done with healthy, trained individuals, and even elite athletes. The authors noted that compression garments were likely to have a greater effect during activity for people who have some chronic venous insufficiency (in healthy athletes, blood return to the heart is already maximized during intense activity) or those who are injured or they run but suffer from medial tibial stress syndrome (“shin splints”), for example.
Bringing Light Into the Dark also found beneficial effects were offered by wearing compression clothing especially during intermittent high-intensity exercise, such as repeated sprinting and jumping. This includes actions such as short duration sprints (10–60 m) and vertical jump height, making compression a useful tool during field and court sports.
A lot of the talk about compression clothing focuses on endurance or field sport-type activities, but one study looked into the benefits on a typical style of weight training. Trained men and women acted as their own control and did an 8-exercise whole body barbell workout doing three sets of 8-10 repetition maximum with 2 to 2.5-minute rests. Workouts were done 72 hours apart, with testing of several recovery factors done 24 hours after each workout. After one workout, participants showered then put on compression clothing on both upper and lower body and kept this on for 24 hours. When wearing compression, the group had significant improvements for vitality, resting fatigue ratings, muscle soreness, and ultrasound measures of muscle swelling.
The term ‘vitality’ might sound a bit airy-fairy, but the Bringing Light Into Dark review noted that this overall sensation of vitality plays a crucial role in exercise performance and any changes in perceived exertion during exercise (or after) may serve as an ergogenic aid for improving performance.