Does compression gear actually work or is it just another fitness fad?

Compression tights can be controversial. For starters, there's the debate about whether men should wear them on their own or with shorts over the top – but I'm not about to open that can of worms. Instead, I want to find out if compression clothing actually works.

The compression craze seems to have started in 2001, when an American basketball player shot the lights out the first time he wore a compression sleeve on his injured arm.

Since then, elite athletes and players of all sports have embraced wearing compression tights, socks and sleeves. Today, the compression garment industry is valued at more than $2.38 billion and shows no signs of slowing down.

Debatable effectiveness

The theory behind compression therapy is straightforward. Compression prevents blood from pooling in the body, can increase muscle temperature, and reduce muscle vibration.

However, despite its ongoing popularity, there is debate about the effectiveness of compression garments.

Although there have been numerous studies conducted around the world, so far there isn't consensus among experts on whether compression garments actually boost performance and speed-up recovery. With this in mind, I turned to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) for guidance.

Tried and tested technique

Shona Halson is a Senior Physiologist at the AIS and specialises in recovery. She says many well-known recovery techniques, including compression, have been tried and tested in medical environments and adopted by the sports industry.

"For years compression stockings have been effectively used in hospitals to improve blood circulation and patient recovery," Halson says. "The rationale behind sports compression clothing is that it too improves blood and lymphatic flow, which increases oxygen to the muscles and theoretically, results in increased performance and better recovery."

Research in favour of recovery

The AIS has completed a number of studies to test if compression garments are the secret weapon to performance. In a 2013 study 12 professional cyclists performed two 30-minute cycling bouts wearing either full-length compression tights or above knee cycling shorts. Halson says the results showed small but positive effects on performance. "The study found that wearing lower body compression garments helped performance, through enhanced blood flow."

Advertisement

And in a separate study, AIS researchers put cyclists in full-length compression garments during the recovery period between two cycling time trials. Again, they found a small (around a two per cent) improvement in performance.

The argument against

Whereas two Indiana University studies released found no impact on running performance when professional distance runners wore lower-leg compression sleeves and no effect on jumping ability when 25 men wore upper-leg compression garments in three different sizes.

It appears the evidence is somewhat more in favour of compression as a recovery technique. Australian researchers who put rugby players in full length tights during 'recovery' runs on a treadmill found that compression helped remove lactate from their blood. Lactate is the by-product that causes muscles to burn during intense exercise.  And US researchers who put men and women in whole body compression garments after intense weightlifting found that they helped reduce fatigue, swelling and muscle soreness.

Furthermore, Halson says a soon-to-be published study on runners who wore compression socks during a treadmill time trial also shows positive signs for compression as a beneficial recovery technique.

Future research

Halson says future AIS research will try to answer how compression garments work.  

"Initial research focused on whether compression garments do anything, but now we know they do help improve recovery, we are looking at what these garments do to the body when they are worn," says Halson. "We are particularly interested in understanding how compression clothing aids blood flow, muscle temperature and muscle movement."

"For example, during running the leg muscles can move a lot due to the impact of your feet touching the ground," says Halson. "We call this muscle oscillation, and runners may experience muscle soreness and damage if their muscles move a lot. If, by wearing compression tights or socks, you can contain the muscles then maybe you will be less sore and have less muscle damage during exercise."

So if the evidence is inconclusive, why are some of the best sporting teams in the world and everyday runners still turning to compression gear?

Convenient support

Halson says convenience is a factor. "From my experience, runners who train a lot and who have to compete regularly or back-up in a short period of time tend to use compression gear to support their recovery," says Halson.

"The thing about compression gear as a recovery tool is that it is easy and practical to do. Other recovery strategies like ice baths aren't pleasant and require certain facilities and resources that aren't available to everyday runners. Despite being expensive, compression gear is really convenient for people to use, making it a popular option."

If you're now kicking yourself for buying a pair of $150 compression tights, then don't. Halson adds that there is no evidence that wearing compression gear does any harm.

"The worst thing that can happen is that it they will do nothing for you. But if you like the feel of them and you feel good running in them then wear them."  

Check out the gallery above for some of the best compression gear for men.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

Follow Laura Hill on Twitter