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The Best Way to Use Compression Gear

Tons of pro athletes are wearing compression gear and using compression machines to improve their performance and speed up their recovery. But do they really work?

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #383

Two runners wearing compression garments

Listener Maurine recently asked me about compression gear on Twitter. This is what she said: "I’d be interested in learning more about leg compression recovery systems. I’ve got lots of compression socks and pants. I'm looking more at machines." Well, Maurine, today I am going to go through both!

What is Compression Clothing?

What was once an industry supported by nurses and waitstaff, these skin-tight duds have gained popularity beyond the medical field and your local all-night diner.

Compression garments are often marketed as a type of magical second skin that is going to improve your athleticism. When reading the ads you might believe that by simply tossing on a pair of tight pants or socks you are going to be able to run faster, jump higher, and lift heavier. But it is not really like that.

For one, compression gear doesn’t provide enough support to make your muscles perform any different than normal. Despite what it feels like, that invincible feeling you get from sliding on those hardcore looking socks is mostly in your head. Your muscles may feel more supported, but that support is minimal. We’ll get into that later.

What was once an industry that was mainly supported by nurses and waitstaff, these skin-tight duds have gained popularity beyond the medical field and your local all-night diner. While some compression gear manufacturers promote their products as a quick and easy way to get the appearance of a flat belly, enhanced chest, or slim legs, the fitness industry has marketed their compression gear more specifically for muscle recovery and physical performance.

Even though we see compression gear being worn by everyone from NBA Players to Triathletes these days, the studies and science of using these garments during an event is hard to nail down. Some researchers say that wearing compression socks or pants during a workout or event can help decrease muscle vibrations (which can cause muscle bruising) and other researchers say that the benefits of compression are mostly related to improved blood flow and circulation.

On the other hand, evidence that wearing these garments after or between workouts and events can improve workout recovery is more substantial. These researchers say that if you wear them after exercise, that extra tightness around your body has been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness by promoting optimal blood flow to those muscles that get beat up during exercise.   

What's the Science Behind Compression?

I am not going to bore you with recounting all 16 studies that I just pored over on whether or not compression garments help with performance or recovery. (Or both.) But I will give you a quick summary of the results.

First the results of the studies where the athletes wore the compression stockings during the workout.

Does Compression Help During Exercise?

  1. There was no significant difference in 10km times, heart rate, or blood lactate levels regardless of the type of stocking worn.
  2. There were no significant differences in oxygen uptake, heart rate, or blood lactate during the runs. There were no benefits post-exercise.
  3. There were no differences in performance or other measures except for muscle soreness which was less after using the compression stockings.
  4. With compression garments, there were greater distances covered and faster velocities, although the enhancements were minimal.
  5. There was no performance enhancement in the time trial (as measured by total work achieved in kilojoules).
  6. There were no differences in performance, ratings, of perceived exertion, muscle soreness, time to exhaustion, and lactate concentrations.

Now let’s look at the results from the studies where the athletes wore the compression garments as a recovery tool.

Does compression Help During Recovery?

  1. The decrease in max power was less when the compression stockings were worn during the preceding recovery and lactate was significantly decreased with the compression stockings also.
  2. After 10km running trials, recreationally active men experienced a reduction in delayed-onset muscle soreness 24 hours after wearing compression stockings (18-22 mmHg) compared with traditional sports socks.
  3. For the first experiment (VO2 max tests) there was no difference in VO2 max with or without compression stockings. But blood lactate levels after the test were lower with compression stockings. For the second experiment (3-minute max efforts) post-exercise lactate was lower only when compression stockings were worn during recovery.
  4. Measures of recovery were sprint speed, agility, vertical jump height, and flexibility. Cold-water produced better recovery results than carbs + stretching or the compression garments.
  5. Post-exercise lactate removal was significantly faster with compression stockings.
  6. Compression stockings improved all markers of recovery except for creatine kinase (a marker of muscle cell damage).
  7. Wearing a full-body compression garment for 24 hours after a challenging, heavy-resistance strength workout enhanced psychological, physiological and performance markers of recovery when compared with non-compressive garments

So, all in all, it’s looking like a slam dunk for the recovery aspect of compression gear.

So, all in all, it’s looking like a slam dunk for the recovery aspect of compression gear. I am tempted to slip on some tight socks and call it a day, but there are still a couple of ways you can use compression that we haven’t talked about yet.

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