compression sports garments

Sports Compression Garments May Help Recovery

sports compression garments
Compression shorts. Photo by Alan Jones. Some rights reserved.

Sports compression garments are popping up everywhere. You may have seen them at the gym or running trail: those sleeves, shorts and socks made of stretchy fabric, sometimes in bright primary colors.

And you may have wondered if they’re just the latest in stylish sports wear or whether they actually serve some purpose. Sports medicine researchers are wondering that, too.

One idea behind sports compression garments is that they improve circulation by keeping blood from pooling in veins. Another theory is that the pressure slows inflammation. This could make muscles work better, reduce pain and speed recovery from exertion.

Manufacturers aren’t shy about the claims they make for sports compression garments. “The latest studies show that athletes wearing CEP compression socks can improve their running time by 5%! ” says CEP Compression.

“Increases strength and power,” says Skins International Trading. “Improves endurance.”

The Science of Sports Compression Garments

Many small studies have examined such claims. Impressively, Skins has conducted some of its own clinical trials. In one study, bicyclists wore SportSkins Classic  full-length lower body garments during a one-hour time trial.

Researchers took all sorts of measurements of things like speed and how much lactic acid built up in their blood.  The bottom line? “The present results demonstrated limited physiological benefits and no performance enhancement.”

Of course that’s just one of many small studies. A couple of research groups have tried to put them all together to reach overarching conclusions.

One of these reviews, published in 2011 in  Sports Medicine concluded found some evidence the garments did affect circulation and inflammation. The garments seemed to help athletes maintain their jumping ability when they were tired.  But there wasn’t much support for any other performance benefits, such as running. And the studies on recovery were mixed.

Last year, a review in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found very small improvements in jump height, time to exhaustion and sprint speed, and moderate improvements in recovery.

Another review, published this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, bored more deeply into the question of recovery.  The researchers concluded that athletes wearing sports compression garments got their strength and power back faster and felt less sore in the days after exercising .

The Bottom Line

From looking at these three reviews, I’m willing to buy the idea that sports compression garments can help athletes recover from exercise faster.

Eric Robertson, who oversees physical therapy students at Kaiser Hospital in Hayward, California, agrees that the research favors using compression garments for recovery:

But Nicholas DiNubile, a sports doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the jury is still out.

I have some reservations, too. First, as these authors point out, the athletes in all these studies knew whether or not they were wearing sports compression garments.  The ones wearing the garments may have had less pain and more strength just because they expected they would.

Second, as Sports Medicine writers pointed out, a hard workout causes a little bit of damage to your muscles. This stimulates them to get bigger and stronger. Theoretically, limiting sports compression garments may interfere with that process over the long term.

Finally, the different studies used different types of garment. So it’s hard to know what to recommend.

I agree with DiNubile that we need a lot more research. But the bottom line is that if you are concerned about pain and weakness after a workout, compression garments are unlikely to do you any harm, and might be worth trying for some inexpensive relief.

UPDATE: CEP sent me an article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that describes a small trial in which 21 runners took two treadmill tests, 10 days apart, with and without CEP compression socks. They were 1.5-2.2% faster with the socks, and the authors theorized that CEP socks might be more effective than other brands because they provide consistent pressure from the ankle up the calf. Other brands provide graduated pressure, going from more at the ankle to less up the calf.

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3 thoughts on “Sports Compression Garments May Help Recovery”

  1. Regardless of the science, I certainly find that calf compression sleeves improve my muscle recovery after running. Muscle tenderness is significantly less wearing the compression sleeves.

      1. I usually wear them following a run for at least 12 hours, but I know many people wear them during a run. They’re comfortable enough to wear during sleep too! The recovery allows me to get back to running again sooner, since my muscles are not as sore

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