There is a fairly new and rising interest in the use of compression gear for athletes. Tight, flexible clothing is a benefit to many athletes, but compression gear takes it a step further and applies pressure to your skin. The intention is to improve blood flow and therefore improve performance.
However, the usefulness of compression gear seems exaggerated when you examine the scientific literature on the subject. For athletic purposes, the results of most studies are not generally substantial. However, it is possible that blood lactate level, a telltale sign of anaerobic energy use, is improved by compression garments. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research explored this topic.
With its limited success in the literature, you might wonder why there is an interest in compression garments at all. The answer is that compression gear works well on people who have blood flow problems, especially in their legs. If compression gear helps people with poor blood flow, it may also help improve blood flow in people without an issue.
In human beings, just standing upright is a biological challenge for blood flow. With the legs so far from the heart, and gravity working against the return of blood from your legs to your torso, it’s surprising that we can stand at all. One theory as to why we can is that our bodies have a theorized “muscle pump.” Essentially, the idea is that the muscles of the legs assist the heart in returning blood to the torso.
In this study, the researchers investigated the use of graduated compression stockings in a group of trained runners. Graduated compression socks are knee height, and they provide gradually lessening pressure from the ankle to the knee. The pressure is higher at the ankle because it is farther from the heart.
The researchers conducted tests on a team of competitive collegiate cross country runners. They tested athletic performance and blood lactate levels both with and without the stockings. Interestingly, the stockings did indeed reduce blood lactate, but that’s not the end of the story. The socks also reduced performance, which is the only reason to examine blood lactate levels anyway. In fact, the reduced performance may be the reason lactate levels were lower when wearing the socks.
So as it stands, compression gear has not progressed any further as an ergogenic aid after the results of this study. In fact, it seems compression socks may actually worsen performance in practiced runners. Perhaps the stockings would benefit people who are more accustomed to wearing them, but I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.
1. Brian C. Rider, et. al., “Effect of Compression Stockings on Physiological Responses and Running Performance in Division III Collegiate Cross Country Runners During A Maximal Treadmill Test,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000287
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