Compression garments (pants, socks and tops) are increasingly being seen in professional teams and worn by elite athletes. Along with this comes the associated marketing to the general public with its wide ranging claims and purported benefits.
In my work with the Performance Recovery Team at the Australian Institute of Sport and through the years of experience with elite athletes using them I can confirm there are two benefits that in most cases are proven to be true, many of the others are as yet not so.
Improved recovery (noticeably reduced effects of delayed onset muscle soreness) in the day(s) after very strenuous exercise
Increased feelings of positive sensations both during and following strenuous exercises. This is likely the biggest benefit, if you believe it feels good and is doing you good then it has some benefit, even if it is placebo!
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, graduated 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.
Current compression methods extend far beyond garments in elite sport- it can take the form of fabric garments or sock and sleeves; or mechanical pneumatic devices that envelop the limbs and pump up to “squeeze” that section of the body; water has a compressive effect and cold water or ice baths even more so.
The key times to wear compression garments include:
• During long-haul flights and long drives/bus or train trips
• During training and competition (but not in hot conditions)
• Immediately after training (even sleeping in them)
Should you wear them while competing? It depends on your sport and your preference – try first in training and see.
Compression garments can also help the traveling athlete to reduce blood pooling in the legs when seated for long periods. For travel, the Australian Institute of Sport recommends 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 as the long tights can be a little too constrictive behind the knee when seated for long. The brand they use is the Venosan socks. I have worn them on all long-haul flights (5+ hours) in economy class over the last 5 years and rate them very highly.
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.
If you’re in a predominantly upper-body sport, get a top; lower-body athletes get the pants. The key features to look for are mostly price - the higher the prices (generally) the better quality they are. Other factors that you want are a graduated garment (tighter near the hands or feet), a high quality dense fabric and a circular weave.
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 sleeveless tops.
You should expect that the suit will gradually stretch and may cease to provide enough compression within 6 months of regular use. To prolong the life of the garment, always machine wash them on a delicate cycle with cold water inside a mesh wash bag, so they don’t get tangled and stretched around the agitator or other clothes. Never tumble dry and avoid harsh detergents and fabric softeners. Once their starting to stretch slightly then use that pair for exercising in and purchase a new crisp set for recovery.