How Effective are Compression Activewear for Athletic Recovery and Performance?

Compression Activewear

Dedicated athletes, whether professional or recreational, are always looking for products that can improve performance and improve recovery times. Manufacturers like Skins, Under Armour, and Tommie Copper — the makers of copper wear — offer compression activewear designed to do just that. While athletes have widely adopted the use of this activewear, and many of them have positive things to say about their efficacy, is there actual scientific evidence that these garments perform as advertised?

The History of Compression Garments

Compression garments were originally used as medical devices in the treatment of venous insufficiency – a condition where blood does not flow properly through the veins. Because they are the farthest from the heart, venous insufficiency presents most often in the legs in the form of enlarged veins, swelling, and discoloration caused by blood pooling in the lower leg. Severe cases of venous insufficiency can result in leg ulcers and life-threatening blood clots.

Medical compression garments help push the blood through the legs, and back to the heart, thereby preventing it from pooling and causing many of the symptoms and risks associated with venous insufficiency.

Doctors may also use compression garments in post-operative patients – especially those with limited mobility – to prevent them from developing blood clots during their recovery.

All of the medical benefits of compression garments have been proven through over 50 years of study and use.

Suggested Athletic Benefits of Compression Garments

Garment manufacturers, and trainers recommend compression garments for the following benefits:

  • Improved blood circulation to peripheral limbs
  • Reduced blood lactate concentration during exercise
  • Improved warm-up
  • Improved muscle power
  • Improved recovery following strenuous exercise
  • Reduced instances of delayed onset muscle soreness

Compression Garments for Athletic Purposes

Athletes use compression garments because they believe they have several benefits including improvements in strength, endurance, muscular power, and proprioception as well as for injury reduction and to maintain healthy joints while running.

Since the late 1980s there have been several studies on athletic compression garments to determine if these claims are true.

Compression Garments and Recovery

There have been several studies conducted from 1987 through 2004, that wearing compression garments during or after exercises could promote blood lactate – also referred to as lactic acid — removal and improve recovery times.

  • A 1987 study conducted by Berry and McMurray demonstrated blood lactate reduction in highly-fit male subjects who wore compression garments during maximal exercise on a bicycle ergometer.
  • A 2004 study conducted by Chatard, Atlaoui et al expanded on the Berry and McMurray study by using 63-year-old men as subjects, and reached the same conclusion.
  • A 2001 study by Kraemer et al reported that subjects who wore compression garments for three days following strenuous exercise, reported a reduction in swelling, improved recovery times, and a decreased perception of muscle soreness.

Based on the studies cited, it would appear that wearing compression garments during and after athletic activities can improve recovery time and prevent post-exercise soreness and swelling.

Compression Garments and Athletic Performance

The question as to whether compression garments can improve athletic performance has been harder to answer. There are studies that show athletic improvements, but there are also studies that show no appreciable improvements at all.

  • A 1998 study by Kraemer, Bush et al showed improvements in repeated jump power and increased vertical jump height in subjects wearing compression garments. The suggested reasons for the improved performance included increased torque at the hip joint, improved warm-up, and reduced muscle oscillation on impact, as a result of wearing the compression garments.
  • The above-referenced Chatard, Atlaoui et all study showed that subjects who continued to wear the garments during the 80-minute rest period, following the test, resulted in improved performance when the subjects were tested again.
  • Conversely, a 1990 study by Barry et al. showed no appreciable difference in performance between athletes wearing compression tights and those without.
  • A 2013 study by Faulkner, Gleadon, McLaren, and Jakeman also showed no overall athletic performance improvements in male runners wearing compression garments during 400-m sprints. However, they did show improvements in blood lactate clearance.

Based on the studies, it is possible that compression garments could increase performance for certain individuals, during certain activities.

In conclusion, although the performance results are contradictory, several studies have clearly indicated that compression garments could improve recovery time, and reduce the risk of injury during athletic activity. Furthermore, some athletes could see performance improvements with the use of compression garments. At any rate, the use of compression garments is not likely to cause harm, especially if athletes make sure the garments they choose provide adequate compression for their particular activity.