Every athlete, from Olympic-level elites to weekend warriors, has a couple of aims in common: to perform to the best of their ability and avoid injury. So when a product comes along claiming to help with both, there are a couple of reasonable responses. “Where do I sign up?” or, “Sounds good to be true”.
Compression clothing purports to improve your sporting performance, help you recover more quickly afterwards and reduce the risk of injury. It’s everything you could ever wish for, but does it actually work?
To find out, Coach asked three experts: James Broatch from the Australian Institute for Sport who is also a spokesperson for 2XU, a brand that sells compression gear; Roger Kerry, a physiotherapist and associate professor in physiotherapy and rehabilitation sciences at the University of Nottingham; and Ed Kerry, a running coach (therundoctor.co.uk) and endurance athlete who is currently attempting to cover 1,000 miles in 22 days by running between the UK’s four capital cities.
And I’ll be providing the layman’s point of view for what it’s worth (which, in comparison with the three other opinions, isn’t very much).
Does Compression Gear Work?
James Broatch from the Australian Institute for Sport, who tests and endorses 2XU sports compression gear
Yes, it works. Compression is traditionally utilised in medicine for the treatment of numerous circulatory diseases, including lymphedema [swelling, usually in the arms or legs], pulmonary embolism [blockage of an artery in the lungs] and deep vein thrombosis. Recent research has also reported compression to be effective in improving exercise performance and muscle recovery.
For example, independent research conducted by the Australian Institute of Sport and other research institutions have shown sport compression garments to improve cycling and running performance, lactate clearance and running economy.
Furthermore, compression has been reported to improve markers of recovery following exercise – including the recovery of muscle power and strength – and reduce markers of muscle damage and inflammation.
Although the exact mechanisms are not entirely known, these benefits are thought to be associated with improved circulation and body awareness, and reduced muscle vibrations, muscle swelling and/or feelings of fatigue and soreness.
Compression isn’t just clever marketing – there is a wealth of evidence to prove the real physiological benefits of wearing compression garments.
RECOMMENDED: The Best Running Compression Socks
Roger Kerry, associate professor, division of physiotherapy and rehabilitation sciences at the University of Nottingham
Some scientific evidence supports a perceived reduction in post-exercise comfort and a small reduction in recovery time with compression socks use during and for 24 hours following exercise. However, available scientific evidence does not support claims about improved performance or reduction in injury. Any therapeutic effects are most likely psychological, rather than physiological.
The “active ingredient” claimed by manufacturers is that the stockings have a graduated compression – that is the stockings are tightest at the ankle, with less compression towards the knee or hip so that blood is “pushed” up the leg. However, studies have shown that any compressive component is lost after five minutes of exercise, and when compared with “non-compression” stockings, any effects are the same.
The best explanation for this is that any effects are likely to be related to a placebo response, not the claimed “active ingredient”. In many ways this is OK – as long as you get benefit, the mechanism might not matter. But you might as well just wear some old football socks!
Like many other items designed and sold to help with physical performance there is no direct harm in using them, so if you feel like trying them, have a go. However, there is always a financial cost, so do bear that in mind considering the scientific evidence.
There is also a worrying indirect cost in that the more you try new items, the more you lose sense of the really important evidence-based things which help performance and reduce injury – that is, proper training and sufficient recovery time. Not at all sexy, but very effective!
Ed Kerry, running coach
As an ultramarathon runner and running coach, I’m often asked whether compression gear really works. I approach this is in two ways: for running and for recovery.
For running there have been studies that have shown slight enhancements in runners’ aerobic threshold and VO₂ max. In my opinion, though, there isn’t enough improvement for me to wear such garments. I have tried calf sleeves and never really seen any massive improvement. In fact, I have worn them in very hot conditions and come unstuck because they got too tight. Lesson learned – if you use them, make sure they to fit correctly.
Recovery is where I would be more inclined to wear compression tights. I have found that this aids my recovery to allow for higher mileage the next day, presumably because it increases the flow of fresh blood. It may well just be a placebo, but if I feel better and train better the next day, surely there is no harm.
Some people swear by the compression concept and if it works for you, great. But remember, the real improvement comes from training well and putting in the hard work – not a pair of compression shorts.
Nick Harris-Fry, Coach writer and layman
I’ve tried both running in compression gear and wearing it to speed up recovery. I didn’t especially enjoy wearing full compression leggings or socks during races and didn’t see an improvement in performance, but I still use them regularly afterwards to help recovery.
I also still wear compression shorts during races but mainly because they hold everything in place, reducing the possibility of chafing in areas where chafing is a major concern.
Also, whenever I have a niggle I will try popping on some compression gear too, in the spirit of trying everything to fight injury.
Compression seems to work for me in terms of recovery, although I admit it could very well be a placebo effect – the snug fit definitely makes it feel like you’re actively “healing” your legs. I’ll never turn my nose up at anything that helps me run more, so placebo effect or not, I’ll keep using compression gear after tough workouts.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.