Compression gear rides a strange duality: the highly visible arm sleeves and tights are often seen on high-profile athletes in both individual and team sports, but many people don’t know exactly what benefits compression actually provides.
Even explaining compression apparel can be tricky. For many, it fits into that category between fad and magic beans, as explanations are often limited to what it does (aid in recovery and improve performance) and not how it does it.
To put it simply, however, putting a dedicated squeeze on major muscle groups helps “push” deoxygenated blood back to the heart, speeding up the delivery of fresh, oxygen-rich blood to working or recovering muscles.
“Wearing compression supercharges the heart, elevates the return of blood and speeds up the return to full capability,” said Aiden Clarke, founder of compression apparel Company 2XU.
The whole point is to speed up the process by which blood is reoxygenated and circulated through the body, according to Wes Piatt, Crossfit Games competitor and founder of Coast Range Crossfit in Gilroy, CA. “The more oxygen that flows through the body, the faster you recover.”
Exactly how much compression an athlete needs varies, Clarke said.
“The compression for exercise and competition is more powerful,” he said. “Recovery and long term use compression is more relaxed for more comfort.
Piatt uses different grades of compression shorts for training sessions than he does for recovery. “For workouts, I wear a tighter, thicker pair of shorts from Virus,” he said. “On rest days I wear a more relaxed pair.”
The tighter compression in performance pieces reduces muscle vibration during repetitive impacts like running or box jumps. A 2011 study published in the Portuguese Journal of Sports Sciences found that muscles supported by compression gear experienced less vibration, less tearing, and less breakdown than the control group.
Ultrarunner Max King uses leg sleeves and compression booties primarily for recovery and travel. One of the most versatile runners in the world, this year King won both the 100k World Championship in Qatar and the 5k Warrior Dash National Championship, in Esparta, CA.
King credits recovering with compression sleeves to helping him recover sooner after races and training sessions. “I can get back to training sooner,” he said. “It helps with my performance by letting me do more work.”
Long-distance travel can also be detrimental to performance, as sitting for long periods of time can lead blood to pool in the lower limbs, resulting in swelling and fatigue. Wearing light compression tights or leg sleeves help to keep the blood circulating in lower limbs. King and Piatt both use compression when they travel.
“I’ve used passive compression leg sleeves during travel to and from international races,” King said. “My legs feel fresher and ready to run when I arrive, instead of swollen and lethargic.”
“I definitely notice a difference when I travel,” Piatt said. “I wear compression pants on long flights.”
It’s not just athletes that take advantage of the travel benefits, Clarke said.
“We’ve received similar feedback from U.S. Navy Seals who travel on long haul flights and then have to perform as soon as they hit the ground,” he said.
While runners, basketball and football players are the most prolific users of compression gear, the sleeves and tights can be found everywhere from the golf course to the Crossfit box.
“Anybody with a heartbeat can benefit from compression,” Clarke said.
According to Clarke, in the near future we’ll be seeing more sport-specific gear and interesting new technologies, including anatomical mapping to target specific muscles and “smart yarns” that will be able to deliver personal performance data from workouts.
Compression, Head to Toe
- Most compression gear focuses on the lower body, but 2XU’s Men’s Elite L/S Compression Top provides compression on the arms to speed up circulation.
- For hotter weather, Zamst’s Arm Sleeves compress the arms, increasing circulation and reducing muscle vibration during workouts.
- Salomon’s Endurance Three-Quarter Compression Tights provides a light graded compression to legs, and the short length keeps legs from overheating on warm runs.
- Huntington Beach, CA-base.d Virus International makes the Cooljade Tech Shorts, a compression short infused with recycled jade to decrease skin surface temperature during intense workouts.
- CEP’s Ultralight Calf Sleeves are lightweight, knee-high polypropylene and polyamide sleeves that offer a graded compression from the ankle to the calf to help facilitate blood flow.
- Zoot’s Men’s Recovery Tights give a light graded compression from the waist to the toes providing a total lower-body circulation boost.