Compression Garments: Hype or Giving Your Athletes the Edge

Compression garments are being sold as a new means to enhance recovery and performance. Do they really work or should you save your money? We examine some of the research that has been done and help you decide if you should purchase a set.

Introduction

Compression garments are a type of athletic clothing which provide gentle compression of the limbs. The manufacturers of these garments claim that this compression assists in the removal of unwanted bi-products produced during exercise, provides feedback of joint position and may decrease muscle damage during exercise.

Compression garments have been a relatively recent development in sports technology. The companies that make compression garments (Skins, Under Armour, LineBreaks, Adidas, etc.) claim that exerting gentle pressure on the limbs provides performance and recovery benefits. This article will examine the strength of those claims and provide advice based on the research of how best to utilize this technology.

Intense exercise and competition lead to physiological adaptations that in the long term will result in improved performance and in the short term lead to fatigue, soreness and performance decrements. Quickly recovering from these negative short term effects of exercise enables an athlete to train harder and more frequently and will allow better sustained competition performance during tournaments.

The companies making compression garments make the following claims:

  • Faster recovery
  • Injury prevention
  • Thermoregulatory control (maintaining correct body temperature)
  • Performance improvement
  • Decreased muscular fatigue

Faster Recovery

Exercise causes muscular fatigue. Regardless of the cause of muscular fatigue, exercise results in damage to muscle cells. creatine kinase, a bi-product of muscle damage can be monitored to determine the extent of the muscle damage.

The most commonly known cause of muscular fatigue is the build-up of lactic acid. Lactic acid is a bi-product of exercise and increases in concentration with exercise intensity. When exercising to a point of extreme intensity this chemical is responsible for the burning sensation in the working muscles and is often associated with nausea and vomiting and the eventual inability to exercise. Lactic acid needs to be removed by the liver and muscles. This process of transporting lactic acid to the liver is passive meaning that the blood stream relies on compression from surrounding muscles and other sources to facilitate this process.

In order to determine if a product facilitates faster recovery, the levels of lactic acid and creatine kinase in the blood need to be examined after exercise with and without the product.

Claim: Compression garments facilitate faster recovery.

Evidence that does not support this claim:

Duffield and colleagues (2008) found that there was no difference in lactic acid levels either with or without compression garments. The rugby players in their study did or did not wear the compression garments during a series tests over consecutive days. No differences between the two groups were observed although subjects reported that they had decreased levels of muscle soreness when wearing the garments.

Duffield and Portus (2006) found that there was no recovery benefit from any of three major brands of compression garments for the cricket players in their study performing a series of trials in tests of throwing accuracy, repeat sprints and maximal throw distance. They did however find that subjects reported less post exercise muscular soreness and showed decreased levels of creatine kinase.

In both of the above studies non-elite athletes were used, the exercise was not a real competition and testing conditions were not as intense as those that an athlete would expect to encounter in competition and in the case of the trials on rugby players they did not experience the usual trauma through the high levels of contact that would occur in a game. In the trials with cricketers the testing conditions did not replicate heat or the length of time that cricketers spend in competition.

Evidence that supports the claim that compression garments facilitate faster recovery:

In their study, Gill and colleagues (2008) tested professional rugby players with four different recovery methods after a match. They were; doing nothing, performing light exercise on a stationary bike, immersion to the hip in cold water and lastly, wearing compression garments. It was found that the latter three recovery methods were equally effective and that doing nothing resulted in greater levels of lactic acid, greater levels of creatine kinase and greater levels of muscle soreness.

In another study, Montgomery and others (2008) found that compression garments resulted in better performance during a number of tests undertaken in the recovery periods of a basketball tournament. Athletes who used either cold water emersion or compression garments performed better in tests of physical performance than those who did not use either method. As expected, physical performance decreased in all groups to some extent during the course of the tournament.

These studies used top level athletes and actual competition to test the effect of compression garments. The results obtained in studies using professional athletes in competition gives an accurate simulation of the stresses that these types of athletes commonly undergo meaning more applicable results. Compression garments were found to be as effective as other means of active recovery methods in both studies.

Conclusions:

Regardless of their final conclusion, all above mentioned studies found some benefit in compression garment usage to increase recovery, particularly in terms of decreased perception of muscular soreness.

When the exercise is intense enough such as that experienced in actual competition there are physiological benefits in using compression garments as a recovery method and these benefits are as good as other methods such as ice baths and light exercise.

Injury Prevention

Athletic performance at any level can result in injury in even the most well trained top athletes. One of the jobs of the coach is to look for ways to minimize this risk. We can minimize injury risk through better training strategy, better recovery strategy and better equipment. Injuries that result from training usually result from too little or too much training load or incorrect training methods. However despite our best efforts, injuries will remain a part of any athlete’s life. Manufactures of compression garments claim the sensation of the tight material around the athletes’ joints increase their awareness of their movements (pro-prioception) which can decrease injury.

Claim: Wearing compression garments decreases the risk of injury. (Note that we can do little to control injury that results from impacts in sport so here we are addressing injuries that occur due to poor muscle control such as hamstring and joint injuries).

Evidence that does not support these claims:

We found no evidence that did not support these claims.

Evidence that supports these claims:

In one of their studies, Doan and others (2003) found among others, that there was increased tension at the end of flexion and extension of the leg while athletes were wearing compression tights. They suggested that this may assist the hamstring muscles in controlling the leg at the end of the movement resulting in a decrease in hamstring related injuries.

This study was well conducted however the discussion surrounding injury prevention was minimal and needs further development.

Conclusions: This is the only study that could be found regarding this claim. In order to properly understand the effects of compression garments on injury rates retrospective studies on injuries of athletes wearing compression garments versus those who were not are required.

Thermoregulatory Control (Regulating Body Temperature)

Heat stress can be a major limiting factor in performance and possibly result in serious injury. Maintaining correct body temperature can prevent significant decrements in performance.

Claim: The manufacturers of compression garments claim that their clothing assists in maintaining correct body temperature both in warm and cold weather.

Evidence that does not support these claims:

Duffield and Portus (2008) found that body core temperature of cricketers was not affected by the use of compression garments.

This study did use cricket players in Western Australia who would have been used to competing in fairly high temperatures (30 degrees centigrade plus) and so have highly developed thermoregulatory systems. The testing environment was comparatively mild at 17 centigrade degrees.

Evidence that supports this claim:

We found no evidence to support this claim.

Conclusions:

Currently there is not enough evidence to accept or refute these claims.

Performance Improvement

The ultimate quest for sports coaches and top level athletes is to find the edge over their competitors and to find the limits of human performance. We are looking for the tiniest improvements now to win gold and set new records.

Claim: Using compression garments brings about improvements in sports performance.

Evidence that does not support these claims:

Duffield and Portus (2008) found no performance improvement while wearing compression garments for cricketers. Duffield and others (2008) also found no performance improvement with compression garments in rugby players while doing game related activities.

Evidence that supports these claims:

Scanlan and others (2008) found that there was an increased concentration of oxygen in the muscle in cyclists when wearing compression garments. Increased oxygen in the muscle may mean that oxygen is more readily available to the muscle. They also found in the same study that cyclists took longer to reach anaerobic threshold. Anaerobic threshold is the point at which the energy demands of the muscles outweigh the oxygen supply and high levels of lactic acid are produced. When reaching the anaerobic threshold is delayed more work can be done before levels of lactic acid slow performance. Scanlan and others (2008) also found increased power output, however the study was unclear as to whether this was power related to sprint performance or aerobic performance. This is a very useful finding for all athletes involved in endurance sports such as cycling, marathon and triathlon and middle distance running. Doan and others (2003) found that wearing compression garments resulted in a slight increase in vertical jump height which has useful implications for any power sport.

Conclusions:

Do not expect that the use of compression garments will make an athlete run faster over 100 metres, they may however be able to sustain work for a longer period of time or at a higher intensity in endurance events. More work is required in regards to the potential of increase leg power over very short duration activities.

Decreased Muscular Fatigue

Exercise of any kind will result in muscular fatigue and damage as a result of ground reaction force (impact from the ground), collisions with other players and objects and general vibration resulting from movement. The manufacturers of compression garments claim that wearing their garments reduces this source of muscular fatigue.

Evidence that does not support this claim:

There is no evidence that does not support this claim.

Evidence that supports this claim:

Doan and others (2003) examined the claims made by compression garment manufactures that wearing their garments would decrease muscular fatigue through impact and vibration. They found that wearing compression garments reduced muscle oscillation on vertical jump landing and reduced muscle impact on landing by 27%. This effect is likely due to the muscle being relatively tightly bound thus reducing the amount of movement it can make without restricting its range.

This is the only study that we could find regarding this claim.

Conclusions:

More study is required before we can refute or accept these claims but this initial study is promising.

Overall Conclusions

There is much more work to be done regarding the claims made by the various companies making compression garments. However, the use of compression garments as a tool for assisting athletes is promising.

  • Compression garments are likely to improve recovery from activity
  • The claims regarding injury prevention and compression garments require further research
  • More work is required regarding thermoregulatory control
  • Compression garments may assist in performance improvements during endurance activity by delaying the onset of the anaerobic threshold and increasing levels of muscle oxygenation
  • There is evidence that compression garments decrease muscular damage as a result of exercise but more work is required

The research that has been be done for this article is by no means exhaustive but indicates where the current scientific opinion is regarding the use of compression garments. We have listed some of the websites of the major brands making compression garments in the links section.

References

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