The inconclusive research behind compression gear hasn't limited its popularity. Credit: Getty Images
It’s race day. You squeeze into your most intimidating compression gear, knowing that the slimming material and arbitrary flashy stripes (which you assume are doing the compressing) will separate you from your lowly competitors. (You know, the people who are only wearing regular Spandex.) But scientifically speaking, can you be sure compression gear is effective?
Kai Karlstrom, a triathlete and Tier 4 trainer at Equinox, says no. But that doesn’t stop him from wearing it.
“Everything about compression gear is anecdotal,” Karlstrom says. “All of the research that I have seen doesn’t prove that it actually has any effect; the blood, or physical markers of recovery, don’t show anything different. But muscle soreness and perceived recovery is a benefit that almost everyone feels.”
In other words, there is no proof that compression gear works, but everybody says they feel better after wearing it. “The research doesn’t prove anything, but that being said, I use mine,” Karlstrom says.
Though the research has been inconclusive, there is scientific rationale behind the functionality of compression gear. The pressure is supposed to improve blood circulation, Karlstrom explains, delivering more oxygen to contracting muscles while allowing waste products, like lactic acid, to be pulled out.
“Gear with a specific amount of compression — anywhere from 15 to 35 millimeters of mercury (mmHG) of compression — functions on a few principles,” Karlstrom explains. “The main one is muscle pump, and/or venous return. When we stand for a while, blood can sometimes pool at the bottom of our legs, because blood has to fight gravity back up to our heart. When we wear compression gear, it helps constrict the blood vessels, or the veins, to aid in recovery of the muscles. When the blood flows better, waste products are pulled out in a better manner.”
According to Karlstrom, this compression process is most effective in the leg area, making compression tights better than compression sleeves. “I know they make compression gear for your arms, but I find the legs are where you get the most bang for your buck,” he says. “You need more compression the [farther] you are from the heart. Your arms and your upper body don’t really need to fight gravity to get the blood returned, so I don’t really see a need for total body compression.”
Karlstrom doesn't wear it while he exercises, "but I do wear it post [workout],” he says. “Compression gear should be used as a supplemental part of recovery.”
He notes that recovery is the most overlooked aspect of training. “During training, all you’re doing is breaking your body down. No good things come from your training until the minute you’ve stopped; that’s when you actually start to reap the benefits. The most important aspects of proper recovery are diet, sleep and myofascial release, or massage. Compression is just a supplement to those three things.”
As compression gear becomes trendier in the fitness world, athletes erroneously rely on it as a simple solution to pain. “It shouldn’t be a remedy for pain, and I think too many people are trying to use it as such,” Karlstrom says. “People don’t really know what’s going on in their bodies, so they find a simple solution, like putting on a sock. Never ignore the 'check engine' light. You need to go see someone about these things.”
We tried it
2XU's women's compression tights ($99) marked our foray into compression gear. We stretched on these suckers right before a race and took them for a spin on our warm up. We felt pretty, well, compressed.
The tights use graduated compression to enhance blood flow, and the fabric wraps and supports major muscle groups. Large X's on the shin, calf, quad and IT band areas give special support to those muscle groups that give distance runners the most trouble. Having battled some IT band issues ourselves, we appreciated the extra support in that spot.
The gear was lightweight and barely noticeable. We have to admit, we looked fast. We can't be sure whether or not the effect was purely mental (but hey, 90 percent of running is looking good). But after removing the compression tights, our upper legs in particular felt loose and ready to go on the starting line.