The science of the squeeze
The theory behind the use of compression garments is that they have two main periods of use – during and, more commonly, after exercise. During exercise, it is thought they aid improved blood flow, therefore providing working muscles with more oxygen. The theory here is that as the blood returning from the lower body is having to work against gravity, squeezing the veins increases that pressure, a bit like how squeezing a hosepipe increases the water pressure – it aids the system in becoming more efficient. This would reduce the perceived difficulty of exercise at a given intensity, which we would all appreciate. It is also thought that the factor of wearing tighter-fitting clothing aids our proprioception, or our ability to know where our body is in space. This might sound a little odd but it is thought this will improve our ability to maintain a correct posture, which can help to make us more efficient.
Following exercise, as we’ve alluded to, compression garments aim to minimise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is the specific muscle ache we have the day after a hard session. It is thought this is achieved through some of the same mechanisms as having a massage. It is thought they also increase the temperature of the muscle they are around. This also promotes blood flow and can promote healing.
Lastly, there are some rumblings that compression garments are able to reduce injury risk. This is linked to the fact that by aiding the warming of our muscles, we may be less likely to strain or pull a muscle.
Wouldn’t it be great if all of that were backed by science? Well, let’s see what we can unearth.
Starting off with the claims for use during exercise, it doesn’t seem like we are off to a great start. From the limited evidence out there, typically looking at runners, it doesn’t seem there’s much linking compression garments and improved running performance directly. This is likely because our bodies are already pretty good at what they do. When we exercise, the muscles, as well as propelling us around, are squeezing the blood back to our hearts. As a consequence, the addition of a compression garment doesn’t really add much to this system.
It was also hoped that by stopping our muscles from shaking too much when we hit the ground during running, this too may limit the micro-trauma to the muscle, which is associated with soreness. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like there’s too much to this one either. Also, though some studies have found that wearing tighter garments during exercise does indeed improve our proprioception, this hasn’t translated to better performance. Maybe this could be an advantage for those who are trying to overcome serious technique issues but as is often the case with science, we can’t say that for sure just yet.
So, let’s shift our hopes to recovery, and perhaps more where we think these types of clothing can benefit us. Thankfully, here we’re on slightly more solid ground. It does seem there is a link between the wearing of compression garments and reduced muscle soreness and fatigue. This likely is based on more solid foundations as its history lies in the medical rather than sporting realm. Compression has been used for years to reduce swelling after an operation by pushing pooled fluids and blood away from the specific area. This isn’t enough to improve performance during running, as we’ve said, but can be useful during recovery. Often such research points to weight training though, where there is obviously a huge muscular load. The evidence for improved recovery — measured by an ability to reproduce a performance during a 24-hr recovery phase in cycling and running — is limited. There is also limited evidence to suggest that DOMS duration or intensity is reduced following use of compression garments.