You’ve probably seen the calves of ultra and elite marathoners as well as recreational runners adorned with colorful, skin-tight, often footless sleeves. Maybe, like me, you’re already a fan and wear them yourself.
If, however, you’re a skeptic, you probably have some questions about compression gear. What is it good for? Is there any science to lend credibility to its proponents’ claims? Is it worth the often spendy price?
The Case for Compression
In short, graduated compression, as featured in most compression gear, actively encourages and increases venous return to the heart and lymph nodes to increase overall circulation. This works to help muscles warm-up more quickly and supports optimal flexibility and muscle efficiency.
A word to the wise! Not all compression is created equal. Not to name names, but some pieces are simply tights in disguise. For optimal benefits, compression needs to be gradual and tight. Look for tights, socks, sleeves, etc. that advertise their strength between 20 and 30 mmhg (millimeters of mercury).
While running, your muscles, tendons and ligaments are exposed to a huge amount of vibration. This constant vibration is a major cause of muscle fatigue, soreness and damage. Compression works to align and hold muscles in place to reduce the amount of muscle oscillations. The result: enhanced prevention of strains and tears while also allowing for greater power output.
Some brands, for example 2XU, have worked to improve coordination and agility through proprioception. What is proprioception? Our bodies ability to sense the movement of our joints and the placement of our joints in relation to space. By increased pressure being targeted over the skin’s receptors this can help to increase proprioception and in turn reflexive movement, body position and muscle coordination — all good things!
In 2009, scientists conducting a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tested a group of 21 athletes. Some were randomly assigned to wear below the knee compression and some wore none. Those wearing compression demonstrated improved running performance at the anaerobic threshold than the athletes who did not wear compression. Another study cited significantly higher levels of muscle oxygenation in subjects with calf compression during exercise.
In regards to calf compression, you have options: socks or sleeves. For longer workouts and races, I prefer the sleeves. My feet are prone to blisters so I wear a good merino blend sock. Some athletes prefer the socks; it’s really just personal preference.
By and large, we serious runners are all pretty good at getting in our prescribed workouts, long runs and the like, but can we say the same thing when it comes to recovery? I for one will admit that I could be better. I have lost count of the number of times I have slipped in the shower while trying to stretch and simultaneously shampoo my hair.
I’d guess that 99.9% of us do not have the luxury of being able to spend adequate time on recovery before rushing out the door to school, work, taxiing kids between sports practices or whatever else we need to do. Compression might be a way to recover on the go without risking a bathroom fall!
After hard training sessions your muscles feel heavy, stiff, and sore. This is due to microdamage to muscle fibers and the resulting inflammation. Compression helps increase the blood flow to the lower limbs, and some athletes report it helps speed up recovery, or if worn immediately after a hard effort, reduces these feelings all together.
In a group of New Zealand rugby players, researchers found that wearing compression garments versus a placebo lycra garment for 24 hours after a workout improved endurance performance. Additionally, athletes in compression reported diminished fatigue and reduced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) post-testing.
Compression: Spendy but Worth It
A few weeks back we roundtabled the idea of running being a sport for rich people. Yes, in theory we only need a pair of sneakers to run, but who can honestly say that shoes makes up the bulk of their running budget? I for one cannot. Between comfortable workout outfits, multiple pairs of sneakers, GPS watches, race entries, and massages, it’s not surprising that many of us balk at the price of compression gear, wondering if it’s worth it. I get it, believe me!
Maybe it’s because of Lupus, the highly inflammatory autoimmune disease I suffer from, that I respond particularly well to the benefits of compression. However, I do not think this is the case. I am of the opinion that compression garments are worth their weight in gold, or more specifically, worth their weight in oxygenated blood flow. When money was much tighter in college I had two pairs, and they were reserved for during and after workouts and races.
But if wearing them during exercise can decrease your chances of a muscle injury, and wearing them after can increase your body’s ability to recover faster, you might be saving money in the long run by avoiding more expensive treatments like massage or physical therapy. So yes, they are worth the cost and everyone can benefit.
Plus, who doesn’t love squeezing themselves into super tight fitting garments?! Ok, maybe that’s where I’m on my own.
While some studies have cited a lack of significant differences between compression and non-compression on performance, there is certainly no harm (unless you’re cutting off circulation) in donning a pair. Precise mechanisms might remain slightly at large, but for me I am more than welcome to foot the bill for compression gear for reduced inflammation, increased recovery and perhaps even running a little faster!
Does compression provide benefits for your performance and recovery? Or is this all a crock of shit?