Does compression sportswear work?

CHOICE finds out whether these exercise garments really improve performance.
 
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01.An extra edge?

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Compression garments – Skins, BSC, 2XU, Under Armour and others – are all the rage, and despite their high prices, there are plenty of people willing to pay for the perceived benefits in performance and recovery.

But do they really help?

Overall, CHOICE has found that the theoretical benefits of compression wear don’t translate into noticeable improvements in performance. This article looks at whether compression wear:

For more information on Exercise equipment, see Diet and exercise.

Better performance

There are several ways compression garments could enhance sporting performance by:

  • Increasing blood flow and oxygen availability in muscles
  • Reducing muscle oscillation (vibration)
  • Increasing proprioception (the awareness of position of joints in space)
  • They may also make you more aerodynamic.

These effects could result in faster times, increased strength, greater endurance and/or more skilful play.

Unfortunately, while the theoretical effects have been shown in trials, this doesn't necessarily translate into better performance. The best outcomes appear to be for jumping, and positive effects on sprint speed and cycling performance have been reported. But other studies have found no difference in performance or speed with regards to ball-throwing, sprinting, cycling and long distance running .

Preventing and managing injury

Injury prevention hasn’t specifically been studied in trials, but there are several theoretical mechanisms for prevention. By reducing muscle oscillation, it’s thought that compression garments may reduce stress injuries. Better proprioception could also theoretically reduce risk of injury by knowing when your body is at its limits – so you don’t over-extend joints, for example.

They may be useful for people with certain existing injuries, by providing support to minimise undesired movement of underlying tissues – much like support straps and bandaging does. A physiotherapist is best placed to determine whether it will help in a particular situation.

Compression increases skin temperature, but doesn’t increase core body temperature. While this suggests you won’t overheat, it also means that wearing compression garments doesn't replace warming up before exercise.

Enhanced recovery

Faster recovery means getting back to training faster, and basically doing more of it. This, in theory, can help improve performance.

To get the full benefits for recovery, the garments must be worn during and after exercise for at least several hours up to 24 hours. If they’re worn only during exercise they won’t have much effect on recovery.

A few studies show improvement in recovery to pre-exercise levels, but others don’t. More studies show improvements in perceptual recovery – that is, people feel better having worn them, reporting less muscle soreness and fatigue. However, the most important factors in recovery are sleep, nutrition and hydration.

CHOICE verdict 

The rationale for wearing compression garments is solid, but the evidence is weak. There are many studies that have been done on compression wear, but the findings are mixed. Findings also vary among individuals. While some studies find physiological benefits, such as increased augmented blood flow, increased muscle oxygenation, decreased lactic acid build up and decreased muscle oscillation, the theoretical benefits from this don’t translate to noticeable performance benefits.

For the average fun-runner and keen amateur sportsperson, there are probably more effective ways of improving performance, preventing injury and enhancing recovery than wearing compression garments.

However, many people love the feel of them – the feel of the material and the pressure on the skin, as well as the feeling of support and reduced ‘wobble’. Anecdotally, many people who try them find they provide a performance boost and that they feel better afterwards. So if you think it works, it does work.

Given that there’s no evidence of any negative effects, if they feel good and put you in a sporting frame of mind, go for it!

There is no particular brand that stands out as being better than another in studies, which was confirmed by an expert exercise physiologist who’s tested a range of different brands, from cheapies to top-of-the-range.

The main thing is that they feel comfortable – tight enough, but not too tight.

More information

Macrae BA, Cotter JD, Laing RM. Compression garments and exercise: garment considerations, physiology and performance. Sports Med. 2011 Oct 1;41(10):815-43. [abstract]

Duffield R, Portus M. Comparison of three types of full-body compression garments on throwing and repeat-sprint performance in cricket players. Br J Sports Med. 2007 Jul;41(7):409-14 [article]

Barnett A. Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: does it help? Sports Med. 2006;36(9):781-96. [abstract]

 
 

 

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