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Ideas for Athletes & Coaches Preparing for Real Competition


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:

  • Reduce blood lactate concentration during maximal exercise bouts and enhance lactate removal and subsequent exercise performance
  • Enhance warm-up via increased skin temperature
  • Reduce muscle oscillation upon ground contact (especially valuable in sprinting and jumping sports)
  • Increase torque generated about joints and reduce risk of injury
  • Reduce effects of delayed onset muscle soreness in the days following strenuous exercise
  • Increase feelings of positive leg sensations both during and following strenuous exercise.

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.

2XU compression tights 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:

  • During long-haul flights in economy and long drives
  • During training and competition (but not in hot conditions)
  • Immediately after training (even sleeping in them)

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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Category : Sport-General


Stefan Angheli May 23, 2009

Hi Michael,

Nice article. Do you (or anyone else) know if there are any studies on compression garments that are published in journals such as the NSCA’s JSCR and/or ACSM’s MSSE? Thank you

Amelia May 24, 2009

Some great, thorough info here. I have been wearing Sigvaris brand medical grade compression; I run also and most runners I know are wearing the Zensah and Venosan brands.

Lisa @ SIGVARIS November 29, 2009

Hi Michael,
Thanks for your article on this topic! SIGVARIS has recently introduced our new Athletic Recovery sock for competitive athletes and weekend warriors alike. If you would like to try a pair, please let me know! More information can be found at http://www.athleticrecoverysock.com. Thanks!

Janice Sandwith December 13, 2009

I work standing all day and always get swollen ankles and legs which get
sore and tired, I also have lots of spider veins in my thighs and was wondering if compression tights would help me in this situation.

Michael December 13, 2009

Hi Janice,

I think the tights would be worth trying… alternatively compression socks might also make a difference.

Good shoes and shuffling your weight between your legs can also help reduce pain and encourage blod flow around the legs.

Maryann February 19, 2010

Useful article! I am an amateur bicycle racer and I bought these tights after hearing a couple buddies swear by them and starting to experience some pain in my knees. So far, so good (second time with them on), but I’m not sure how long to wear them after a hard work-out or race (much as I enjoy prancing around the house in the outfit). Any tips?

Michael February 23, 2010

My advice from the Australian Institute of Sport is to wear them as long as you like - in practice this might be from just after a work out or race until bed time.

Churn March 9, 2010

Great article.

I’m an amateur paddler, and I train mostly by paddling and weights. The compression tops for sale usually have measurements for different sizes, but unfortunately my body, being non-standard and all, don’t quite fit the them - my chest size is bigger than a particular size and waist smaller than it. Should I go tighter or looser?

Also I’m wondering, would compression tops enhance performance only when you have them on? What I’m asking is, would I get more out of training wearing it than not?

Michael March 9, 2010

Hi Churn,
I believe it’s better to have the slightly smaller size as then you can be sure the compression effect will be working.

Compression tops could enhance performance when you are not wearing them by potentially helping you to recover faster between sessions. If you could afford it, you could have a top you wear training and another (clean) one you’d wear after (for a few hours).

Bike Traks July 13, 2010

We have a special offer (35% off) all 2XU (two times you) clothing.

I personally use it after any long run to aid in recovery and think the equipment is great.

Look at the 2XU website for tones of information on how it works. Its very impressive!!

a leder August 11, 2010

would compression tights help with a chronic but relatively mild adductor strain. My guess is that it might have much the same benefit as when you see an athlete with a heavily wrapped thigh. has anyone had any experience with this?

Zamen August 15, 2010

I’m an amateur paddler and I’m very interested in buying compression. However, I’m not sure whether I should get those with long-sleeves or short-sleeves? Furthermore, does compression really help during training or during a race? If so, why aren’t world class athletes wearing them during a race?

John July 17, 2011

Thanks for this Michael. I’m competing in the XIII Australian Masters Games in October and I was just wondering about Compression suits.

I noticed you didn’t review Bsc brand. They’re website makes certain claims over 2XU. Not sure what to believe there.

All the best.

LHH October 6, 2011

Great article. I picked up a pair of Sub Sports Sub Armour Compression Tights on amazon and find they’re great for recovery and my calves have never felt better. Even after a week of trekking in the Moroccan High Atlas which I would have expected to ravage my muscles I finished the week feeling relatively fresh while using them for recovery

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