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Compression pants, socks and tops are increasingly being worn by professional athletes. Here’s our review of the what, why and which of compression garments.
Scientific studies with athletes have shown that compression garments may:
While a couple of studies have reported no benefit to wearing compression garments, no studies have reported negative effects on performance or perceptions of pain.
Compression Garments Have Been Squeezing People for Ages
Medical compression stockings have been used in the treatment of poor venous blood flow for more than 50 years. These stockings are usually worn over the leg and foot and create a controlled, gradient compressive force on the leg. The compressive force is greatest at the ankle and diminishes over the length of the stocking to a minimum at the top.
Therefore, compression works by squeezing de-oxygenated blood back up towards the heart a bit quicker than normal and limit fluid pooling in the limbs.
The compressive effects of these garments are used to improve recovery in hospitals by promoting venous blood flow, decreasing blood pooling and preventing thrombosis in post-operative patients.
When you have to sit still, such as on a long haul flight, the lower legs and ankles swell with fluid as the body is without the natural movement and ‘muscle pump’ which helps circulate fluid back to the heart. Compression garments can also help the traveling athlete to reduce blood pooling in the legs when seated for long periods.
Which Compression Brand to Buy?
Compression suits are relatively new and there are a variety of brands out there offering various quality products. To be effective, you need a garment that provides the right amount of graduated pressure to promote venous return.
Not all sports compression products are alike – they differ in the technology in the cut and design of the suit as well as the type of material (usually a mix of nylon and lycra). Good brands have a detailed sizing chart on the back of the box to help you get the correct fit.
You should expect that the suit will gradually stretch and may cease to provide enough compression within 3-4 months of regular use. It’s suggested you machine wash them in cold water inside a mesh wash bag, so they don’t get tangled and stretched around the agitator or other clothes.
Currently, the 2XU brand offers a high quality product. (I have no affiliation with them at all!). They have an exclusive circular knit which enhances the durability of the garments’ compression properties. This is pretty important given that sports wear tends to get treated badly. 2XU suits do cost a bit more, but the fabric technology should make sure they are effective for longer.
I’ve been training with a pair of 2XU’s elite compression tights for the past few weeks. When you first put them on you can really notice that the lower down in the suit, the more compression there is.
As far as use goes, they feel especially useful during dynamic, explosive and eccentric exercise – as in sprinting, changing direction quickly, downhill and cross-country running. I think the tights would also make a lot of sense for multi-sport endurance events where you run, cycle, kayak etc, all day.
When to use Compression Garments
The key times to wear compression garments, in order of effectiveness, include:
Naturally, if you haven’t been exercising or traveling, the compression isn’t likely to do much for you!
Should you wear them while competing? It depends on your sport and your preference – try first in training and see.
With respect to travel, the scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport recommend going with a medical grade compression sock. These offer greater compression than a regular compression suit and stretch from the ankle to just below the knee. If you have a pair of compression tights as well, this means they will still be clean and ready for the first training session when you hit the ground again. Also, the long tights can be a little too constrictive behind the knee when seated for long.
I got a pair of Venosan socks and have worn them on a couple of long-haul flights (8-13 hours) in economy class to test them out (what dedication!). (To be really scientific I probably should have worn them on one leg and not the other, but I think that would have gotten annoying!). Anyway, subjectively my ankles showed almost no signs of swelling – normally they look far bigger after sitting for so long. The socks felt tight – I could definitely always feel them there – but as long as the fabric was smooth with no creases they were comfortable.
Note that if you’re flying in business or first class (lucky you!) you’ve got the opportunity to lie down and have more space to move around in your seat, so venous pooling of blood is less of a problem compared with cattle class.
The Skins brand is also popular and they have done a great job with marketing and penetration of their large range of products. A recent study in the Australian Medical Journal found that wearing Skins improves circulation in-flight while decreasing leg pain and increasing energy and alertness.
Which Suit – Pants, Tops or Shorts?
If you’re in a predominantly upper-body sport, get a top; lower-body athletes, get the pants. The pants make most sense for athletes who want to use them for traveling. Otherwise, get both!
While a few companies have also produced a compression short, these don’t make a lot of sense for enhancing venous return as the shorts only compress the upper part of the legs, rather than where it might be needed most, down at the calves. Same for the tank top. However, these items may assist warm-up and reduce muscle soreness.
Remember, compression garments are another tool for the serious athlete. If you train every day and are more or less on top of core training principles like specificity, sports nutrition and recovery then you’ll probably benefit from investing in a compression garment. Get the major things right first, then consider minor add-ons like compression.
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