Watch any sporting event, and chances are you will see athletes wearing tight, spandex-looking attire on their legs, arms, chest—pretty much anywhere and everywhere on their body. The more official name for this type of sport-specific clothing is compression apparel, you probably have some of it in your CrossFit wardrobe. Part of the reason that compression gear is so common in the sports world these days is that the manufacturers behind the products want their consumers to feel that by wearing the gear, they’ll perform better. You’ll see fancy slogans from big companies attached to their latest compression garments:

From adidas, on their techfit base tee

  • climalite® fabric sweeps sweat away from your skin
  • techfit™ focuses your muscles’ energy to generate maximum explosive power, acceleration and long-term endurance
  • Compression for improved posture and muscle alignment and enhanced performance; Breathable panel on chest

This all sounds quite nice, but does it actually work, or is it all a load of BS?

Concept of compression gear
Compression clothing is most commonly made of a blend of spandex and nylon, and designed in such a way so as to be stretchable while maintaining a specific structure. These garments are based on a medicinal practice that has been used for years. Specialized compression socks and leggings were used to deliver specific levels of pressure to the body, compressing and helping support underlying tissue. Their design places pressure on blood vessels of the leg, constricting them. This then forces blood to flow through a smaller canal, which in turn increases blood pressure in the legs and forces blood to be pumped back up towards the heart instead of pooling in the lower leg. This type of compression gear helps circulation in patients with low blood pressure, treats varicose veins (swollen, twisted, and sometimes painful veins that have filled with an abnormal collection of blood), prevents swelling in the ankles and legs and even helps wounds heal. Wearing compression clothing has been shown to improve functional movement in patients suffering with movement disabilities that include arthritis and paralysis.

With compression clothing proving to be such a success in the medical field, sports designers and companies sought to replicate its effects on athletes, with the intention of improving performance and speeding up recovery. Since compression attire had proved to be so successful in people suffering with leg mobility, brands began by targeting runners—though of course this soon expanded to multiple sports and disciplines. The idea was to borrow the practice of pressuring blood vessels in order allow more blood oxygen and nutrients into the compressed muscle and help get rid of waste products (like lactic acid). The theory was that doing so would increase the working muscle’s capacity to produce energy, allowing the athlete to run faster.

Another concern for runners and other athletes who experience heavy footfalls in their sport is the effect that foot strikes have on the muscles. As your foot hits the ground when running, vibrations are transmitted from your foot up your leg, causing your muscles to shake. The belief is that this causes damage to the muscles, negatively impacts mechanical efficiency of the muscle and running mechanics, and increases post-exercise soreness. This is why compression gear is so tight, as it seeks to secure the muscle in place and limit excessive shaking—leading to improved mechanical efficiency and a reduction in soreness following a workout. Add in the additional blood flow, improved delivery of oxygen and nutrients and removal of metabolic waste, and compression gear appears to significantly reduce soreness and improve recovery times post-exercise.

But these are all claims that come from major sports equipment companies, who spend ungodly amounts of money on marketing campaigns to get us to buy into the concept that compression clothing really is helping us become better athletes. But are they right?

What the research shows
Since compression gear became a common feature in athletics, there have been several studies seeking to examine whether it can actually help to improve performance. However, they are mostly inconclusive. Now, a lot of these reports did show that compression garments showed an improvement in blood flow (especially in well-trained runners), though there was no significant improvement to running endurance. In fact, in 2011 a German literature review published in Sportverletz Sportschaden analyzed 37 different compression garment studies, concluding that, overall, the studies “showed no general scientific indications regarding the benefit of compression garments in competitive sports.” This appears to be pretty damning evidence, does it not?

However, there are some studies that lend support to the notion that wearing compression gear can help you recover post-exercise. Many reports showed that athletes simply felt less sore after exercise when wearing compression attire, and they believed they recovered better too. Of course, this might just be a placebo effect—athletes believing that they felt less sore simply because they were wearing some fancy sports gear. Fortunately, researchers in New Zealand found a way to control the placebo effect. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Researchrevealed their test. Fourteen “trained multisport male athletes” performed an initial 40km time trial on bikes, then rested for a full 24 hours before performing the time trials a second time. During this rest period, some of the athletes were given a full-length compressive garment to wear, or a similar looking piece of non-compressive placebo gear. The intent was to make all of the test subjects believe that they were wearing compression clothing. A week later, the two test trials were performed again, only this time the athletes who had worn the placebo gear the week before were now given compression tights, and vice versa. The results of the study showed that on the second-day rides, the athletes went 1.2 percent faster when they wore compression gear during recovery as opposed to the placebo clothing. Though the researchers weren’t entirely sure what the underlying biological mechanism was that allowed for the increase in speed, the study would appear to prove that wearing compression gear post-exercise does indeed help you recover quicker, thus allowing you to perform better on a day-to-day basis.

The verdict on compression gear? That’s up to you
Some people will swear by their compression sports clothes and won’t train without them, despite the fact that most of the evidence on whether it does much doing a workout being inconclusive. However, if you do decide to perform a WOD in them, go ahead and leave them on for a while afterwards (or throw on some clean compression gear for a longer period of time) and see if you feel any difference when you return to the box, go for a run, etc. Let us know what your results were!

Photo courtesy of triitalian/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

William Imbo
William Imbo is an Associate Editor at BoxLife magazine, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and holds an MPS in Sports Industry Management from Georgetown University. He is an avid CrossFitter and loves film, music and travel, thanks to having grown up across Europe. A fan of the New Orleans Saints and Newcastle United, Will's favorite CrossFit girl is Helen-least favorite being Isabel.

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