If you’re a gym goer or a trail runner you may have seen people wearing knee-high socks, tights or sleeves while exercising. But does this skin-tight compression fitness clothing actually provide any real benefits?
My interest in this topic started two years ago when I wore a set of calf sleeves while preparing for a 10K mud run. I had strained my left calf when I rolled my ankle during a trail run and, as I was coming back from the injury, I wanted something to help reduce the soreness. It felt like the sleeves provided support to the calf muscles—specifically the gastrocnemius, soleus, peroneus longus and posterior tibialis—which can take a beating during running, especially when increasing training volume to prepare for a race. When I wore the sleeves it felt like the muscles warmed up more quickly, were a little more elastic and felt more supported than when running without them. However, I was curious to know if there was any scientific research on the effects of wearing compression clothing or if it was merely a placebo effect from wearing tight, elastic material around working muscles.
There is a variety of research on runners, weightlifters and athletes in sports, such as soccer and rugby, which suggest that wearing compression garments while exercising can provide a slight improvement in performance. However, what surprised me the most was the research showing that wearing compression clothing—both tops and bottoms—AFTER exercise, including while sleeping, can help enhance the recovery process.
In one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research researchers tested the effects of compression garments on recovery from high-intensity running workouts. The study authors wanted to see if compression clothing could provide benefits for athletes that compete in multi-day events, such as tournaments. The subjects performed a series of high-intensity running drills, and then either wore compression clothing specifically designed to improve recovery or a placebo outfit made of similar materials. The subjects that wore the compression clothing overnight experienced better running times the next day than the subjects that wore the placebo suit. One week later, the groups switched and again the subjects who wore the compression exercise clothing overnight performed better in the next day’s testing. (Hamlin 2012)
The interesting thing is that in the studies I have reviewed the authors are not able to identify exactly how compression clothing works, but the testing shows a quantifiable benefit from wearing compression gear. The theories behind how compression clothing works include that the tightness can reduce venous blood pooling and increase arterial flow to working muscles. In this scenario, the pressure from the clothing helps venous blood flow remove metabolic waste and assists arterial circulation with carrying oxygen to the working muscles. Another theory is that compression clothing causes an increase in surface temperature of the skin and that this thermodynamic effect can help improve oxygen diffusion from the capillaries to the working muscles.
In the case of my calf injury, the pressure from the sleeves (I used 2XU compression sleeves from a local running store) probably did help improve the tissue temperature, which enhanced blood flow, thus providing the benefits that I experienced when I wearing them. The bottom line is that whichever scientific hypothesis proves to be correct as to why they work, the there is sufficient scientific evidence to show that wearing compression clothing can make a difference both during and after exercise.
Hamlin, M. et al. (2012). Effect of compression garments on short-term recovery of repeated sprint and 3-Km running performance in rugby union players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26, 11, 2975-2982.