Distance runners are always looking for an edge in performance. Shaving seconds away from each mile can mean achieving a personal best or winning the race. Compression clothing, tight-fitting garments used to apply surface pressure to specific body parts, have emerged as performance aids with promises to improve training and recovery. Research confirms recovery benefits with use of compressive garments, but the jury is out on whether they improve performance.
The Concept of Compression
Using compression in athletics began when the medical field discovered its use in protecting patients with deep vein thrombosis. The intention of compression is to aid in venous return to the heart, reducing muscle fatigue and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Compressive garments accelerate blood flow to exercising muscles, thereby facilitating delivery of oxygen and removal of lactic acid. Clothing can be worn while training or overnight to speed recovery. Companies like Skins and 2XU offer shorts, tights, capri pants, and upper body compressive gear.
Performance and Recovery
Compression's aid in recovery is well-researched and documented. In a review of literature, Andy Harrison, MS, and Kevin Thompson, PhD, of the English Institute of Sport found that compressive garments work by reducing muscle oscillation, or unnecessary movements. This facilitates metabolic waste removal and improves proprioception.
Wearing compression clothing also exhibits a psychological effect in athletes who feel better in this attire and perceive that they can improve performance wearing it. However, there is still little evidence to prove the physiological effects of compression on performance.
A 2010 study from Indiana University found compression garments to have little influence on performance for runners. Abigail Laymon, a researcher in the Kinesiology Department, studied the effects of lower leg compression sleeves on distance runners. She found little to no effect on running economy, or the amount of energy a person expends at a given workload, or improved biomechanics. However, several subjects did show slight improvements in economy; they happened to be the same runners who displayed a favorable attitude toward wearing the sleeves and believed they would help with performance. This finding supports the idea that there is a psychological improvement when wearing compression clothing.
Other Benefits of Compression Clothing
While its value in performance enhancement needs further research, compression gear does offer other benefits. Compressive clothing is made of lycra or similar synthetic materials engineered to wick away sweat for moisture control. In addition, as these garments typically cover entire body parts, they offer 50-plus SPF UV protection.