I always thought compression clothing, especially those tan or black compression socks, was beneficial for older people with swelling and blood clots. But, does compression clothing have benefits for exercise and performance?
Recently, it seems like athletes are swearing by their expensive compression shirts, socks, pants, shorts and other apparel. The tight-fitting items are thought to hold muscles firmly in place, and
improve blood flow, thus boosting athletic performance. The clothes are also thought to refine proprioception, which is one’s sense of how the body is positioned in space. In theory, better proprioception should improve the efficiency of movement, reduce the number of muscles that need to be activated, and ultimately make exercise less tiring. But, evidence to support such benefits has been largely anecdotal.
In January 2015, Dr. Stickford, then a doctoral student at the Indiana University in Bloomington, published a study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance regarding the testing of compression gear. The study included 16 competitive male distance runners, and some of which regularly wore, and swore by compression clothes. She equipped the runners with monitors and masks that measured their gait, oxygen intake, and other variables, and had them run on a treadmill at increasing speeds. Then, she had the men slip on calf compression sleeves, and repeated the treadmill tests. If the compression sleeves functioned like they were said to, the men should have used less oxygen and been more biomechanically efficient while wearing the sleeves. But, Dr. Stickford found no statistically significant differences in their running efficiency or biomechanics when they were wearing the sleeves and when they were not.
It is thought that the placebo effect is the real effect of compression clothing. If you think that these products actually do help, then that affects your performance. So if you think that a compression shirt will benefit your workout, go out and splurge on a $60 tee shirt!
Daniel Cipriani, an associate professor of physical therapy at Chapman University, believes that compression clothing is effective as a post-exercise recovery measure. Compression can help cut down on some swelling that is associated with all the blood flow. However, the clothing would need to be worn for several hours after a strenuous exercise session to improve recovery.
No evidence to date has found any negative physiological effects from compression clothing. If you don’t mind feeling squished into your clothes, and do believe in performance enhancers, go out, experiment, and see for yourself!