As athletes and coaches we all seek advantages where we can get them. From exotic diets to ice baths, athletes are often willing to try anything that isn’t harmful to get that edge that secures victory. One such popular tool is compression clothing, which boast claims of reduced muscle soreness, improved circulation, and increased flexibility.
The research on compression garments, however, has been a little mixed. There are definitely reports of increased circulation floating around, as sometimes these garments are recommended by doctors as occupational therapy for those with specialized circulatory needs. But is that a significant benefit for athletes, and do compression garments give any other advantages? Researchers behind a study recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning sought to answer this question.
The researchers looked at compression garments for the lower limbs, specifically at a full lower body garment and a mix of compression shorts and compression sleeves for the calves. They compared these to using no compression garments at all, having participants perform runs of various lengths and measuring various performance markers, perceived exertion, heart rate, and other factors.
The researchers discovered no performance difference between garment types and no garments at all. There was also no difference in blood lactate levels. Although there was some evidence these lactate levels dropped faster in those wearing compression garments, the difference was not statistically significant.
Performance is the bottom line, but something else did happen as well. The athletes noted a significantly reduced perceived exertion while wearing the garments. In other words, sprinting hard didn’t suck as bad. It’s important to note here that because it was obvious when the garments were worn or not worn, this study very likely had some placebo effect in place, which could explain the differences in how the athletes felt versus how they actually performed, but this is important information regardless. If the garments really do lower the perception of effort, wearing them could create an important long term motivation toward exercise. This area, however, needs more study.
Because the researchers did note a trend in lactate clearance it’s possible some of the claims about improved recovery rates and reduced DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) might have some validity. These claims were beyond the scope of this particular study, which focused on the short-term effects of compression garments. That said, because improved recovery is by far one of the most important aspects of athletic improvement, compression garments can still have a very useful role.
Before considering purchase of compression garments, think first about your individual needs. If you find them comfortable or useful for your sport, there are real potential short-term benefits that have more to do with motivation than performance. If recovery, or poor blood flow are concerns of yours, these garments might be just what you need.
1. James Faulkner, et. al., “Effect of Lower-Limb Compression Clothing on 400-m Sprint Performance,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:3 (2013)