Whether it’s on the local running trail or in the Olympics, you’ve probably seen athletes wearing compression garments. These closely-fitting leggings, socks, sleeves, and more are supposed to help performance and recovery—but do they actually work?
How compression garments work (in theory)
Theoretically, compression clothing is supposed to help athletes by doing the following:
- The compression increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the tissues, making exercise more efficient and less tiring.
- The snug clothing increases proprioception (awareness of the body in space), which improves posture and movement.
- The compression acts almost like a low-level massage, putting pressure on muscles to minimize delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
- Compression garments raise the temperature of the skin and tissues to increase blood flow and promote healing, the same way that heat therapy does.
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These benefits are supported by anecdotal evidence. But there have been a number of studies performed that can shed light on whether these claims are backed up by scientific research.
Let’s look at each theory individually.
Theory 1: They help performance during exercise
According to research, the supposed benefits for performance are mostly unfounded. A review of studies involving runners wearing compression clothing found no statistically significant improvement in performance. Runners’ speed and stamina were unaffected by wearing compression clothing. 1 Is There Evidence that Runners can Benefit from Wearing Compression Clothing? Sports Med. 2016 Apr 22. [Epub ahead of print]
Individual studies have revealed small performance gains, but taken as a whole experts say the evidence is limited and inconclusive.
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Theory 2: They help recovery after exercise
As opposed to the evidence about performance during exercise, there seems to be a good case for how compression garments can help with recovery after exercise.
When compression clothing is worn after working out, it can provide significant relief from muscle swelling and fatigue, according to a review of studies. 1 Is There Evidence that Runners can Benefit from Wearing Compression Clothing? Sports Med. 2016 Apr 22. [Epub ahead of print] They can also help muscle tissue recover more quickly. 2 Are compression garments effective for the recovery of exercise-induced muscle damage? A systematic review with meta-analysis. Physiol Behav. 2016 Jan 1;153:133-48. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.10.027. Epub 2015 Oct 30.
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Experts caution that it’s hard to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of compression gear from studies, because there are some many variables for each study. For example, what type of exercise was done, what type of compression garment was worn, what measures were used as indicators of performance or recovery, etc.
Researchers also acknowledge that there’s a very strong possibility of a psychological “placebo” effect with wearing compression garments—if you think it’s helping you, you perceive that your exercise or recovery were easier. It might actually be true too; the placebo effect is known to produce real results.
So should you add compression clothing to your workout? If you engage in daily training and you want to use compression garments to aid your recovery time, they may be worth your while. But occasional athletes can probably skip them.
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