HEALTHY LIVING
05/03/2012 07:47 am ET

Does Compression Gear Improve Athletic Performance?

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By Claudine Morgan

Think compression clothing is really just tight workout gear? Try again! While these pieces may be a bit more body hugging than traditional workout gear and originally used in a medical setting to assist with healing, compression garments are becoming increasingly popular among athletes. Manufacturers like Under Armour and SKINs claim compression clothing increases muscle power and stamina, improves coordination and speeds recovery. But this doesn't necessarily mean it's time to upgrade the old gym wardrobe in favor of some more shapely gear.

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Beyond Spandex -- Why It Matters
Compression clothing -- most often made of a blend of spandex and nylon and engineered to be stretchable while maintaining a specific structure -- has been used in the medical field for years. The garments apply mechanical pressure to the body, compressing and helping support underlying tissue. This increase in pressure can help improve circulation in patients with low blood pressure, treat varicose or spider veins, prevent leg and ankle swelling and even support wound healing. When used properly in these contexts, research suggests compression gear is actually very effective. Clinical compression garments have even been shown to improve functional movement in patients with disabilities such as arthritis or paralysis!

But these tight duds have gained popularity beyond the medical field. While some manufacturers market products as an easy road to a flatter belly, enhanced breasts and slimmer thighs, the fitness industry has adopted compression gear as a way to improve muscle recovery and (in some cases) physical performance. Companies boast benefits including reduced exercise-related discomfort, increased performance and faster muscle recovery.

Under Pressure -- The Answer/Debate
Despite widespread use of compression clothing by competitive and everyday athletes, studies supporting their performance enhancing abilities are inconclusive. Some research suggests wearing compression tights while running helps decrease muscle vibrations (which can cause muscle fatigue). But the full range of benefits compression companies tout were mostly related to an improvement in blood flow and -- especially in well-trained athletes -- don't significantly improve running endurance. And while one small study found compression garments can improve circulation, allowing the body to use less energy at the same (or even faster) speed, the sample size in this study was small (only six runners!), and the results were completely self-reported by the subjects. The bad news? Self-reported studies present the possibility that perceived performance boosts could be the result of a placebo effect.

But evidence showing these garments improve workout recovery is more substantial. Compression clothing can enhance overall circulation, helping speed muscle recovery time post-exercise. Worn after exercise, that extra squeeze has also been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. And in one (less-than-comfortable-sounding) study, wearing a whole body compression suit for 24-hours following a workout showed enhanced recovery compared with a non-compressive control (in both men and women). Compression sleepwear: The next big thing?

In the end, sorry folks -- it seems to be somewhat of a tossup depending on the activity in question. While many studies have found compression clothing to be beneficial in a variety of situations, one publication analyzing 37 different compression garment studies found that, overall, the special clothing did not have a significant effect on physical performance or make workouts any easier, though it could have some advantages when worn after an intense sweat session.

Experts' Takes
We asked our experts for their input on compression clothing -- here's what they had to say:

Linda LaRue: "As a Certified Athletic Trainer, I whole-heartedly endorse compression sleeves particularly for the elbow and knees. They can also help manage inflammation and provide warmth which helps distribute synovial fluid, or the 'grease' that lubricates your joints."

Aaron Lautman: "Compression clothing and accessories do a number of things to aid athletes and rehab patients. Compression has been used for a long time with the elderly to increase blood flow to and from certain extremities. Most of the time they are used as compression socks to help blood flow from the legs to the heart."

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.

Flickr photo by Bill Ruhsam

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