Under Pressure: Does Compression Apparel Work?

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Michael Lovato's take on compression wear. Photo: Nils Nilsen

Compression apparel has entered the triathlon mainstream, with pros and age-groupers alike donning specially engineered socks, sleeves and more to aid their training, racing and recovery. But does it really work?

Written by: Tawnee Prazak

Michael Lovato's take on compression wear. Photo: Nils Nilsen

At the 2010 Underpants Run in Kona, the phrase “Compress This” was plastered across the backside of a swim brief worn by pro triathlete Michael Lovato. Thought-provoking—in more ways than one.

The fact: Compression garments have infiltrated endurance sports. Triathletes of all skill levels are wearing the skintight pants, socks, tops and sleeves, creating quite the fashion statement. But the questions remain: Does compression really work? Or is it simply the placebo effect in play?

The truth: No one knows for certain. “What makes it tough is it’s so subjective,” says pro triathlete Andy Potts, who wears compression for recovery and during races. “Personally, I notice a difference,” he says. “I started wearing it in ’08 for recovery. Putting the socks on after pushing so hard is part of the process, one of the triggers to relax.”

Potts alludes to the increased feeling of comfort compression provides, which might be the one benefit anyone can really be sure about. In addition to promoting comfort, manufacturers of compression gear assert that their products can reduce muscle fatigue, boost performance and speed recovery. But just how bulletproof is the research?

“It’s highly debatable if there are any benefits,” says triathlon coach and exercise scientist Joe Friel. “[Research] is so varied with approaches to the pertinent topics—performance and recovery—that it’s hard to draw conclusions.”

That’s not to say compression apparel should be written off as a marketing gimmick; I wear it regularly, as do a lot of other triathletes. What is certain is that it’s worth digging deeper into the science and burgeoning trend of using compression clothing.

Some History

Compression apparel started out as a medical product. Photo: Nils Nilsen

Compression made its debut in medicine more than 60 years ago to treat patients suffering from venous disorders (such as deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT) by enhancing circulation, reducing blood pooling, increasing deep-tissue oxygenation and more. “The population of people who have an issue with lymphedemga [blockage of the lymph vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body] show good results,” says physical therapist Ron Gallagher. “Compression with chronic swelling and blood clotting has been shown to be effective as well.”

In the late ’80s researchers began investigating whether athletes could benefit from compression for the same circulatory reasons. A 1987 study in the American Journal of Physical Medicine showed that compression socks lowered blood-lactate levels after exhaustive exercise. Compression socks are believed to shuttle more blood deep into the leg to venous calf muscle pumps, allowing for less swelling and pooling—and less lactate. When compression garments are worn on other body parts, the potential benefits expand to include increased muscle response, reduced muscle oscillation, improved posture and form and enhanced efficiency and perception.