Benefits of Compression Gear
Author: Taylah Danaë Baggs Date Posted:8 December 2017
We explore the increasing popularity of compression gear among athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
We’ve all seen them. Go for a coffee early in the morning and you’ll likely see cyclists sporting knee-high socks. Pass by a track and field event at your local park and there will be arm and calf sleeves galore. And when you’re next at a triathlon or running event, the number of athletes you’ll see wearing tight-fitting shorts and shirts will be staggering. Why are so many athletes now squeezing themselves into these skin-tight garments called compression gear?
What’s all the fuss about?
Compression sportswear consists of super tight-fitting clothing that many athletes wear during athletic activity and recovery periods. Popular sports brands such as SKINS, CEP, 2XU and Compressport have sunk time, research and funds into their compression clothing out of a deep belief in its benefits.
Compression gear is designed to help athletes in five main ways:
- Reduced muscle oscillation (vibration).
Compression clothing secures your muscles in place so they don’t shake or wobble unnecessarily during activity. This leads to less muscle fatigue, since muscle energy is more efficiently directed into their designated task.
- Increased blood and oxygen circulation.
Compression gear squeezes your blood vessels, causing them to open more forcefully. This allows more blood and oxygen into the compressed muscles. As a result, blood doesn’t pool in your body; instead it returns to your heart faster. Meanwhile, the extra oxygen clears away waste products such as lactic acid and creatine kinase concentrations.
- Increased skin temperature.
Keeping your muscles at a comfortably warm temperature helps to prevent injuries. There’s a reason why you warm up before an event: cold muscles are much more likely to sustain acute ligament, tendon and muscle injuries such as hamstring strains, as well as overuse injuries. Thankfully, compression clothing doesn’t raise your core temperature and make you feel overheated.
- Decreased perception of fatigue and DOMS.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain and stiffness you feel in your muscles after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise. Since compression gear can clear out metabolic waste products and keep your muscles from being overused, you’re less likely to feel as tired and sore during and after training.
- Increased sense of proprioception.
Proprioception is your body’s natural balance or awareness of its own parts: knowing where they are and what they are doing. It can be a difficult concept to understand until you lose it, since proprioception is mostly subconscious. It’s proprioception that allows you to walk without having to look at your feet, for example. Compression clothing can enhance your awareness of your joints (e.g. knee) and allow you to better sense when they approach positions that may place them at risk of injury (for example, a hyperextension).
As a result, compression clothing can help to improve performance and speed up recovery.
What types of compression clothing are available?
Compression clothing usually comes in four categories: socks, sleeves, shorts/tights, and shirts.
The low-down: Compression socks are usually almost knee-high, but can come in lower cuts as well. They keep your feet and (in higher cuts) legs warm while waiting for your race to start, keep your muscles in place during the event, and prevent blood from pooling in your lower legs, which causes your feet to swell painfully. In addition, the tight fit is less likely to give you hot spots and blisters from wrinkling. Some brands use graduated compression, so that compression is more intense at the lower end of the limb to help push blood back up to the heart, such as the 2XU Performance Compression Run Socks..
Best for: Runners, skiers, people with shin splints/calf issues, people who work on their feet all day (e.g. teachers, construction workers, retail assistants).
Arm & Calf Sleeves
The low-down: Arm sleeves lend your arms the benefits of compression clothing while leaving your shoulders completely free for complete range of motion. Calf sleeves work in much the same way as high-cut compression socks. Most people choose calf sleeves when they want different socks on their feet (e.g. warmer socks, having to change into dry socks, having a favourite sock), or when compression socks are difficult to fit since their foot and calf fall under different sizes. They also work as leg or arm warmers, such as the Altra Arm Warmer Sleeve.
Best for: People who want full range of movement across their shoulders (arm sleeves) or those with long feet but thin calves, or short feet but thicker calves (calf sleeves).
Shorts & Tights – Women’s & Men’s
The low-down: Compression shorts and tights come in many different lengths. They support your glutes, groin and quads, as well as your calf muscles in longer variations.
Best for: Cyclists, runners, hikers, ball sport players (e.g. footballers), martial artists.
Shirts – Women’s & Men’s
The low-down: Compression tops keep you warm during early-morning or interval sessions. They increase blood flow across your upper body, reduce muscle oscillation in your arms, and helps pull your body back into its natural alignment during sports that require an ‘unnatural’ posture (e.g. cycling and skiing). Some even come with convenient pockets, like the Compressport Trail Run short sleeve shirt.
Best for: Cyclists, skiers, runners, field sport athletes, gym junkies.
Is it too good to be true?
Compression gear has its origins in medicine. Doctors discovered that compression fabric that moulded around various parts of the body could increase blood and lymphatic flow. To this day, nurses and doctors hand out compression bandages to injured athletes. Innovators then took the concept and created the thin, lightweight compression gear we see on athletes today.
That said, there simply isn’t enough research to entirely support compression clothing yet. Several studies support the benefits of compression gear. These include:
- Australian Institute of Sport – found that wearing lower body compression garments enhanced blood flow.
- University of Newcastle – found that lower body compression garments increase blood flow and reduce heart rate during high-intensity endurance running.
- Massey University in Auckland – found that graduated compression stockings reduced DOMS, specifically in the compressed muscle region.
- University of Exeter – found that wearing compression for 24 hours following exercise improved performance in strength tests and reduced perceived soreness.
- University of Essex (Human Performance Unit) – found that compression tights can improve energy expenditure, improve proprioception and expedite recovery.
But there isn’t yet a consensus among experts. Other studies contradict these, or at least find no perceptible difference in their subjects when they wear compression clothing. Many studies do agree that compression gear does provide its theoretical benefits (the five points above), these benefits don’t always translate to noticeable performance benefits.
Anecdotally, however, many elite, professional and amateur athletes worldwide who try compression clothing report performance boosts and feeling better during their recovery period. Most studies show that compression gear improves perceptual recovery: people feel better having worn the gear, reporting less muscle soreness and less fatigue. Many people also simply enjoy the tight-fitting feel of compression clothing and appreciate the lack of extraneous movement from their muscles when exercising with compression.
There is no evidence of compression clothing having any negative effects on performance. So, one might say that compression clothing is not so much about magically making you stronger as faster as it is about making you feel better and fresher, so you can put in more effort during exercise and feel more comfortable afterwards.
Whether you wear compression clothing for aesthetics, comfort, or their psycho-physiological benefits, Wildfire Sports & Trek stocks a wide range of compression sleeves, socks, tops and bottoms.
Tips to Remember
- Wear the tightest fit you can comfortably get on and will be able to wear for a decent amount of time. Ensure the seams are in the right place and that the garment is firm around your muscles.
- Follow each garment’s care instructions carefully. Compression clothing can be expensive, so make sure you read the labels to keep them in shape.
- To receive their recovery benefits, you need to wear your compression clothing after your event or training session too. Wear the garment for at least an hour and have a backup to wear for up to 24 hours after a particularly strenuous race, for full benefits.