Compression clothing: Effective or just a fashion craze?

is compression clothing effective?

Just admit it, you own at least one piece of compression clothing. Compression gear is traditionally used by people who need extra support to ease prolonged standing, or to improve blood circulation. For a couple of years now, compression clothes became widely used among recreational runners and not only the pros.

Depending on the use, compression garments are usually made from a combination of spandex, lycra, and rubber materials. The actual benefits of these accessories have been both confirmed and disputed by research.

Add to it anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect, and coming to a sound conclusion of their benefits suddenly becomes fairly difficult. So let's try to untangle what some of the research tries to tell us. We'll look at recent studies that investigated the effects of compression clothing (such as socks, tights, sleeves).  

What are the benefits of compression clothing?

Runners and other athletes usually decide to wear compression clothing to improve their sporting endeavours. This is usually claimed to happen through actual sporting performance or through aiding a faster recovery.

A study published by Kemmler and colleagues looked at male runners and their running performance by using compression stockings (also known as calf sleeves) while exercising.

They came to a conclusion that using this garment improved their performance, evidenced by better time and ''work'' variable (measured in kJ) in both aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.  


Is this enough? Strong evidence is lacking

It's worth noting that Kemmler's team didn't observe significant changes in VO2max. The slight increase in VO2max can't really explain the mechanism for increased performance. So the question is what has driven this slight improvement? In contrast to Kemmler's research, a growing body of published papers tends to contradict any positive effects of compression clothes.

For instance, a research by Scanlan and colleagues from 2008 investigated compression calf sleeves and cycling performance. However, the results showed only slight physiological (possible slight improvements in levels measuring muscle oxygenation) improvements, and no performance improvements. This adds evidence to Kammler, who also saw only slight physiological nonsignificant VO2max improvements.

A meta-analysis conducted by Engel with colleagues combined a vast number research papers looking at compression clothing. This type of research adds more weight to a conclusion we draw from this research, simply given the number of studies it considers.

Their research showed improvements in the time to exhaustion, therefore, improvement in a variable contributing to endurance running performance, and not directly to a running performance.  


So does compressed clothing improve performance indirectly?

The studies mentioned above, from both Scanlan et al. and Engel et al., show that compressed clothing can slightly increase muscle oxygenation and time to exhaustion. Both of these variables are likely to contribute to sporting activity; despite not always contributing to positive changes in performance. Hamlin with colleagues in 2012 looked at the impact on the sprinting performance of compressed clothing on rugby union players.

Here is what they did: A group of rugby players completed a number of sprints to simulate a game. Then they were randomly split and without their knowledge given compressive tights OR other clothing without the compressive element (this was the control group). They were made to wear the compressed clothing for 24 hours following the sprints.

After 24 hours both groups removed their compressed or noncompressed clothing and completed a number of sprints and one 3km run. After one week, the whole procedure was repeated, however, the group that had compressed clothing was given noncompressed and vice versa.


What did they find?


The group with compressed tights had better times for the 3km run, and on average their sprint times improved, fatigue decreased during sprints, and muscle soreness came later. This seems to show that compressed clothing during recovery aids recovery times that later positively impact on further sporting activity.

Despite conflicting studies, there is also ubiquitous anecdotal evidence of improved sporting activity with compressed garments. However, can we attribute any weight to anecdotal evidence? Such as: ''Well, I just feel better and I feel I run faster!''.

Clearly, the answer is a ''no'', if reliable research shows otherwise. However, it's possible that psychological variables drive these anecdotes. One of the variables can be the perceived effect of the clothing. This can be caused simply by the compressed feeling on muscles. Therefore in addition to recovery, psychological benefits can improve running and the experience of running.

And if that is the case, especially for recreational runners, isn't that the ultimate advantage of wearing compressed clothing?  


Wrapping it up

The evidence for and against the benefits of compressed clothing is mixed and inconclusive. A recent meta-analysis shows no real effect on sporting performance, however, we see improvements in variables contributing to performance. This has been consistent with other studies pointing out other contributing variables.

For instance better muscle oxygenation, in addition to evidence suggesting better recovery times. Based on this we can conclude that there is some evidence of using compressed clothing for better sporting performance.

Lastly, many runners report anecdotal evidence of improved performance (perceived or actual). Additionally, some people report more comfortable feeling from wearing compressed clothing. Many studies don't investigate comfort, and if comfort is a variable contributing to perceived performance, we can say that compressed clothing is effective in contributing at least to a better experience from running and other similar sports.

Given that this type of running equipment can in some way improve your performance and it feels better, why not continue wearing it? What are your thoughts on compressed clothing? Leave a comment below!

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