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Does Compression Gear Really Work?

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It’s hard to think that there was a time when compression socks only featured on long-haul flights and operation tables. These days it’s absolutely everywhere, with brightly-colored, high-tech versions sported by amateur athletes and pros alike. And while for some it’s predominantly a fashion statement (think themed- and dress-up runs), others swear by its perceived performance-enhancing abilities.

#GophertoBadger 5K” by Amy Jane Gustafson. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

But what does the research say? Does wearing compression gear really give you the edge? Or is it just a passing fad favored by running fashionistas? Let’s have a look.

The Purpose of Compression Gear

The compression gear industry is currently booming, with the overall compression- and shapewear market predicted to reach a staggering $5.6 billion by 2022. Countless manufacturers are producing a variety of compression garments around the globe, including and not limited to compression socks, tights, tops, calf sleeves and even arm sleeves. But, except for a tight squeeze, what exactly are these garments expected to deliver?

Compression gear basically stimulates blood flow and circulation, which, or so it is believed, could lead to more oxygen and a less lactate in the blood while exercising. Some also say that it controls the level of muscle oscillation and vibration resulting from running, which could potentially improve running kinematics and lessen fatigue. But are these claims backed by science? Or is it all just clever marketing hype?

The Impact of Compression Gear on Training

Research findings confirming that compression gear has a positive impact on running performance if worn while running is underwhelming at best. A team from the University of Wuppertal in Germany performed a literary review on the subject in 2011, and concluded that only small positive effects were noted for wearing compression gear during exercise. This was found to be relevant to sprints measuring 10 to 60 meters, time to exhaustion and time trial performance in time trials lasting 3 – 60 minutes.

A recent study funded by Nike also concluded that, although compression tights do greatly reduce muscle vibration, this has no impact on muscle fatigue. In other words, muscle fatigue happens just as quickly with or without compression tights.

Still not convinced? A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that compression garments had no statistical impact on running performance over any of the following distances: Half marathon, 15K trail run, 10K, 5K and 400-meter sprints. Bummer.

But why then do so many runners swear by and insist on wearing compression gear while running? Scientists suspect that this is purely a placebo effect. One that is probably fueled by the hefty price tag of compression gear. After paying a lot for the gear, the wearer literally wills it to positively impact on exercise performance.

It is, however, also important to note that no research to date has concluded that compression gear has a detrimental effect on running performance. There just simply isn’t any conclusive evidence that it significantly improves running performance when worn on the run. So if sporting a bright pair of compression socks on your early-morning run brightens your day, by all means go ahead and rock them.

The Post-Run Benefits of Compression Gear

Research findings on the benefits of post-run compression is, however, numerous and irrefutable.

The study by researchers from the University of Wuppertal (mentioned above) found a small to moderate effect on various measures of recovery when compression gear is worn post-workout. This includes reduced swelling and muscular pain. Various other studies have also concluded that the use of compression garments after exercise both facilitate recovery and reduce muscle soreness.

10658900_1467465816875757_3316765343254566921_o” by fourway333. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

And, in addition to the proven physical benefits of compression gear on post-run recovery, there’s a psychological aspect to this as well. Sporting a pair of calf sleeves after your weekly long-run has the psychological benefit of making you feel like you’re actively helping your body to recover. Which, in turn, may lead to you feeling more rested and ready for your next workout.

Tips for Reaping Optimal Benefits from Post-Exercise Compression

In order to reap these recovery benefits, it is, however, vital that compression be applied within the optimum range. Too little compression may not be sufficient to modulate blood flow, while excessive compression may restrict it. So how much compression is enough? Scientists currently believe that compression in the 20 – 30 mm mercury (mmHg) range is ideal. Some manufacturers state the compression level of their gear on clothing labels, so be sure to check before you buy.

Another thing that is vital to optimally reaping recovery benefits from compression gear, is a good fit. It’s only logical that a pair of compression tights that fits well over your thighs, but is baggy in the calf area, will not render optimal results. So make an effort to find a brand and cut that works well for your body.

And then, finally, it goes without saying that repeated wash and wear may alter the effect of your compression garments. An old, worn-out pair of compression socks will certainly not render the same recovery benefits as a stretchy, new pair.

To Compress or Not to Compress

So while permanently lounging around in compression gear is definitely not recommended, the use of compression garments to enhance post-run recovery certainly has its place. Wearing a pair of compression socks or tights after a long run or race is sure to, as part of an all-encompassing recovery strategy, contribute to having you ready and rested in time for your next hard workout.


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