Author: Jack Forrest, M.D.
Sales of compression gear has jumped 170% from 2008 to 2010. Compression gear comprises 5% of the sports apparel market. Under Armour claims compression shorts “increase muscle power.” Adidas states their compression shorts “focus muscle energy and endurance.” Most compression clothing is made from a blend of nylon or polyester and elastane (spandex). Compression clothing for calves, forearms, and entire suits are available for purchase. Compression calf sleeves retail for around $40 while compression items for cycling or triathlon can be upwards of $300.
But does it work?
Fortunately, we have some studies to help us decide whether they really offer a benefit. Researchers have studied the effect of compression tights in persons with chronic illness since the 1980s but little has been done with regards to athletic performance. Medical studies involving compression garments were originally designed to study effects on blood flow in patients with vascular disease. Earlier studies show that compression stockings increase blood flow to the calves and improve venous return from the legs.
But do they help healthy individuals? One study from Australia compared the performance of professional cricket athletes using three different brands of compression clothing against non-compressive clothing. The athletes’ performance while sprinting and throwing was measured in each type of clothing. Compression garments did not improve physical performance but did show a decrease in post-exercise perceived muscle soreness and a lower CK (creatine kinase – a marker of muscle breakdown). A study from New Zealand demonstrated a decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness 24 hours after a 10k run but no difference in performance between a group of runners wearing knee-length compression stockings and those without. Another study from New Zealand even appears to control for the placebo effect. A group of cyclists did back-to-back 40km time trials with 24 hours rest between. One group was wearing spandex tights while another was wearing compression tights. Another back-to-back 40km time trial was done one week after the first but the clothing was switched. Those wearing spandex the first time received compression tights and vice versa. On each second day ride, the group wearing compression went 1.2% faster
So what can we conclude from the limited information available regarding compression tights?
- Compression clothing does appear to offer a benefit with regards to recovery.
- Athletes have less soreness following exertion when using compression.
- But there does not appear to be an increase in strength, speed or explosiveness during competition when comparing athletes using compression or simple spandex or standard clothing.
- Compression clothing probably does make a difference for professional athletes but may not be worth it for everyone else.