Take a look at any professional football game, basketball game, or race starting line, and you’re bound to see them: compression garments. Tight sleeves, knee-high socks, full-length leggings in neon colors that seem to be on nearly every competitor.
The claims are impressive: Manufacturers say compression garments can speed recovery, increase blood flow, and therefore, improve athletic performance. But what does the science say? And what’s the best choice for a recreational gym-goer?
Compression clothing—most often made of a blend of spandex and nylon and engineered to be stretchable while maintaining a specific structure—has been used in the medical field for years. The garments apply pressure to the desired body part, compressing the tissue and helping to promote blood flow and prevent edema. Compression stockings reduce occupational leg swelling. Partsch H, Winiger J, Lun B. Dermatologic surgery : official publication for American Society for Dermatologic Surgery [et al.], 2004, Jul.;30(5):1076-0512. Compression stockings for the initial treatment of varicose veins in patients without venous ulceration. Shingler S, Robertson L, Boghossian S. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2011, Nov.;(11):1469-493X.
“Stockings were made so there is more pressure lower [on the leg], and less farther up,” says Robert Gotlin, D.O., the director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. “They can push blood along for those with vascular disease or circulation problems.”
From there, the thinking emerged: If the garments increase blood flow, maybe they could help athletes perform better, Gotlin says. A quick anatomy lesson: Our muscles need oxygen in order to perform. They get that oxygen via our blood flow. So, in theory, increase blood flow equals increase oxygen equals better athletic performance… right?
Maybe. There are lots of conflicting studies. A few small ones have noted improvements in jump performance and submaximal running, while other studies looking at longer durations found the garments to be of little help to endurance athletes. The effects of wearing undersized lower-body compression garments on endurance running performance. Dascombe BJ, Hoare TK, Sear JA. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 2011, Aug.;6(2):1555-0265. Compression garments and exercise: garment considerations, physiology and performance. MacRae BA, Cotter JD, Laing RM. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2012, Jan.;41(10):1179-2035. Aerobic energy cost and sensation responses during submaximal running exercise--positive effects of wearing compression tights. Bringard A, Perrey S, Belluye N. International journal of sports medicine, 2006, Oct.;27(5):0172-4622. Perhaps even more importantly, a review of studies about compression garments worn by athletes concluded that the various types (sleeves, socks, etc.) and varying grades of compression often gave rise to contradictory results. [Effects of compression textiles on performance enhancement and recovery]. Sperlich B, Born DP, Haegele M. Sportverletzung Sportschaden : Organ der Gesellschaft für Orthopädisch-Traumatologische Sportmedizin, 2011, Dec.;25(4):1439-1236. In other words, there’s no clear verdict.
“There are studies that show the biggest effect is placebo,” Gotlin says. Long-term effects of graduated compression stockings on cardiorespiratory performance. Priego JI, Lucas-Cuevas AG, Aparicio I. Biology of sport, 2015, Apr.;32(3):0860-021X. “People might say they feel and perform better with the garments on, but it is it because the garments are doing their supposed function?” Or could it simply be the garments providing an extra bit of adrenaline because you already think they’re helping you?
Sean Fortune, a running coach and owner of Central Park Coaching, is a fan. “Especially if your legs feel a little beat-up, and you’re going for a run, the snugness on the muscles will feel great. And it’s just an added protection layer that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Fortune, who prefers to wear compression half-tights or socks from Zoot, says he initially started wearing the gear to help with hamstring tightness and soreness. Today, he recommends everyone should at least try a compression tight.
Elizabeth ‘Corky’ Corkum, a running coach from Mile High Run Club, agrees. “I don’t think there’s any evidence that there’s a negative effect,” she says. “So if you like it, great! It’s not going to hurt you to wear it.”
Corkum says she’s almost always worn compression gear—she likes brands Pearl Izumi and CEP—especially when racing longer distances. “They’re helpful with my calves,” she says. “It might be placebo, but it feels like there’s a bit more support there.”
There is one aspect of compression garments where the science might be a bit stronger: recovery day.
“[Compression garments] do push more oxygen through the body, so it makes more sense that they have more of a role in recovery, because it’s all about physiology,” Gotlin says. A recent review also found that compression may aid in faster recovery—but was cautious to say more research was needed. Are compression garments effective for the recovery of exercise-induced muscle damage? A systematic review with meta-analysis. Marqués-Jiménez D, Calleja-González J, Arratibel I. Physiology & behavior, 2015, Oct.;153():1873-507X.
“I’ll take an ice bath, and then wear my recovery tights under jeans,” Fortune says. “Everything just feels compressed and not inflamed—but it’s hard to say the exact difference it makes. Maybe it’s in my head, but I think it helps.”
Both Fortune and Corkum suggested starting with a pair of compression socks, if you’re looking to try out the gear. And both readily acknowledged that while compression gear seems to work for them, it might be a placebo effect, and it might not work for everyone.
“It’s going to come down to the individual person and their comfort,” Corkum says.
From a doctor’s perspective, Gotlin also said compression gear was probably fine to try as long as it wasn’t too restricting or limiting in your range of motion. However, in the quest to become a better athlete, he adds, “Nothing replaces good old hard work and human effort.”
Originally published May 2012. Updated January 2016.