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Can Compression Clothing Make Me a Better Athlete?

Compression gear may be different than average workout gear, but can these skintight duds really make workouts better and ease post-workout problems?
Can Compression Clothing Make Me a Better Athlete?

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Think compression clothing is really just tight workout gear? Try again! While these pieces may be a bit more body hugging than traditional workout gear and originally used in a medical setting to assist with healing, compression garments are becoming increasingly popular among athletes. Manufacturers like Under Armour and SKINs claim compression clothing increases muscle power and stamina, improves coordination, and speeds recovery. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to upgrade the old gym wardrobe in favor of some more shapely gear.

Beyond Spandex — Why It Matters

Photo: Allstate Life Insurance℠ New York 13.1 Marathon®

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 mechanical pressure to the body, compressing and helping support underlying tissue. This increase in pressure can help improve circulation in patients with low blood pressure, treat varicose or spider veins, prevent leg and ankle swelling, and even support wound healing [1] [2]. When used properly in these contexts, research suggests compression gear is actually very effective [3]. Clinical compression garments have even been shown to improve functional movement in patients with disabilities such as arthritis or paralysis [4]!

But these tight duds have gained popularity beyond the medical field. While some manufacturers market products as an easy road to a flatter belly, enhanced breasts, and slimmer thighs, the fitness industry has adopted compression gear as a way to improve muscle recovery and (in some cases) physical performance [5]. Companies boast benefits including reduced exercise-related discomfort, increased performance, and faster muscle recovery [5].

Under Pressure  — The Answer/Debate

Despite widespread use of compression clothing by competitive and everyday athletes, studies supporting their performance enhancing abilities are inconclusive [5] [6]. Some research suggests wearing compression tights while running helps decrease muscle vibrations (which can cause muscle fatigue). But the full range of benefits compression companies tout were mostly related to an improvement in blood flow and — especially in well-trained athletes — don’t significantly improve running endurance [7] [8] [9]. And while one study found compression garments can improve circulation, allowing the body to use less energy at the same (or even faster) speed, the sample size in this study was small (only six runners!), and the results were completely self-reported by the subjects [8]. The bad news? Self-reported studies present the possibility that perceived performance boosts could be the result of a placebo effect.

But evidence showing these garments improve workout recovery is more substantial. Compression clothing can enhance overall circulation, helping speed muscle recovery time post-exercise [10]. Worn after exercise, that extra squeeze has also been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness [4] [11] [12]. And in one (less-than-comfortable-sounding) study, wearing a whole body compression suit for 24-hours following a workout showed enhanced recovery compared with a non-compressive control (in both men and women) [13]. Compression sleepwear: The next big thing?

In the end, sorry folks — it seems to be somewhat of a tossup depending on the activity in question. While many studies have found compression clothing to be beneficial in a variety of situations, one publication analyzing 37 different compression garment studies found that, overall, the special clothing did not have a significant effect on physical performance or make workouts any easier, though it could have some advantages when worn after an intense sweat session [6].

This article was approved by Greatist Experts Linda LaRue and Aaron Lautman.

Experts’ Takes

We asked our experts for their input on compression clothing — here's what they had to say.

Linda LaRue: "As a Certified Athletic Trainer, I whole-heartedly endorse compression sleeves particularly for the elbow and knees. They can also help manage inflammation and provide warmth which helps distribute synovial fluid, or the "grease" that lubricates your joints."

Aaron Lautman: "Compression clothing and accessories do a number of things to aid athletes and rehab patients. Compression has been used for a long time with the elderly to increase blood flow to and from certain extremities. Most of the time they are used as compression socks to help blood flow from the legs to the heart.

The Takeaway

While it looks like performance enhancing benefits are questionable, multiple studies suggest wearing compression garments can improve post-exercise recovery.

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Works Cited +

  1. Compression stockings reduce occupational leg swelling. Partsch, H., Winiger, J., Lun, B. Department of Dermatology, University of Vienna, Austria. Dermatologic Surgery, 2004 May;30(5):737-43; discussion 743.
  2. Compression stockings for the initial treatment of varicose veins in patients without venous ulceration. Shingler, S., Robertson, L., Boghossian, S., et al. Public Health Sciences, The Medical School, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK. Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews, 2011 Nov 9;(11):CD008819.
  3. Pressure prediction model for compression garment design. Leung, W.Y., Yuen, D.W., Ng, S.P., et al. Department of Mechanical Engineering and †Institute of Textiles and Clothing, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Journal of Burn Care & Research, 2010 Sep-Oct;31(5):716-27.
  4. Wearing a sports compression garment on the performance of visuomotor tracking following eccentric exercise: a pilot study. Pearce, A.J., Kidgell, D.J., Grikepelis, L.A., et al. Centre for Ageing, Rehabilitation, Exercise and Sport, Victoria University, Australia. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 2009 Jul;12(4):500-2.
  5. Compression garments and exercise: garment considerations, physiology and performance. MacRae, B.A., Cotter, J.D., Laing, R.M. Clothing and Textile Sciences, Department of Applied Sciences, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Sports Medicine, 2011 Oct 1;41(10):815-43.
  6. Effects of compression textiles on performance enhancement and recovery. Sperlich, B., Born, D.P., Haegele, M., et al. Fachgebiet Sportwissenschaft, Bergische Universität Wuppertal. Sportverletz Sportschaden, 2011 Dec;25(4):227-34.
  7. The effects of wearing undersized lower-body compression garments on endurance running performance. Dascombe, B.J., Hoare, T.K., Sear, J.A., et al. Faculty of Science and Information Technology, University of Newcastle, Ourimbah, NSW, Australia. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2011 Jun;6(2):160-73.
  8. Aerobic energy cost and sensation responses during submaximal running exercise--positive effects of wearing compression tights. Bringard, A., Perrey, S., Belluye, N. EA 2991 Efficience et Déficience Motrices, Montpellier, France. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 May;27(5):373-8.
  9. Different types of compression clothing do not increase sub-maximal and maximal endurance performance in well-trained athletes. Sperlich, B., Haegele, M., Achtzehn, S., et al. Institute of Training Science and Sport Informatics, German Sport University, Cologne, Germany. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2010 Apr;28(6):609-14.
  10. Compression sleeves increase tissue oxygen saturation but not running performance. Ménétrier, A., Mourot, L., Bouhaddi, M., et al. EA 3920 Physiopathologie Cardiovasculaire et Prévention, IFR 133, Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon, France. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2011 Nov;32(11):864-8.
  11. The effects of compression garments on recovery. Davies, V., Thompson, K.G., Cooper, S.M. Sports Council for Wales, Cardiff, United Kingdom. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009 Sep;23(6):1786-94.
  12. Lower limb compression garment improves recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in young, active females. Jakeman, J.R., Byrne, C., Eston, R.G. School of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Exeter, St. Luke's Campus, Heavitree Road, Exeter, UK. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2010 Aug;109(6):1137-44.
  13. Effects of a whole body compression garment on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. Kraemer, W.J., Flanagan, S.D., Comstock, B.A., et al. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Mar;24(3):804-14.