You’ve seen them at practice or in the gym – those ultra-tight shorts, shirts or socks, usually black with super-cool racing stripes, worn by serious-looking athletes. Compression garments have made a big splash in the world of athletic wear in the last few years. Manufacturers claim that these high-tech garments “improve sporting performance,” “heighten power and ability,” “reduce muscle damage and fatigue” and “speed muscle recovery time.” Sounds great! What roller derby athlete doesn’t want all of that? But I want to know – do they really work? So I did a little more digging to find out.
Compression garments have been around a long time; medical compression stockings are used to improve circulation in the legs, and other garments are used to help with recovery from vascular surgery. Doctors have been recommending them for over 50 years, and they definitely work for that purpose. Just ask your grandma. Recently, athletic wear manufacturers saw potential in this science – if it works for improving blood flow in grandma’s legs on the airplane, of course it should work for athletes’ muscles on the court or on the track, right? Well, not exactly.
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According to the few small scientific studies I was able to find (here, here and here), no definitive proof was found that compression clothing directly improves athletic performance. Scientists were able to detect increased blood flow and subsequent oxygenation of the muscles, which you would think would improve performance, but the athletes’ performances were essentially the same with our without the compression stuff. Some of the people who did show small improvements were already big believers in the product before the testing, so the scientists were pretty sure the placebo effect was a factor in their results.
On the other hand, there have been more promising results in the area of recovery. Some people who use compression garments after exercise claim to have less muscle fatigue and soreness in the following days. The researchers weren’t entirely sure about the reasons why the garments improved recovery, but they speculate that the increased blood flow helps get rid of waste products in the blood faster (like lactic acid build up, which leads to soreness).
People have asked me when Pivotstar is going to start making “compression” clothing. Of course I stand behind our products and we promise comfort, style and quality, but we’d never assume to promise any performance benefits. I’m very hesitant to jump on the compression bandwagon because I’ve researched other well-known apparel brands that claim to be “compression” and found they use the same (if not lower) quality fabric and designs as Pivotstar products. High-quality compression garments have particular specifications for how much pressure they put on the muscles (usually between 30 and 40 mmHg). Unfortunately, different manufacturers have differing specifications, and they rarely publish these numbers to consumers at large, so it’s unclear what you’re actually getting when they slap a “compression” label on a garment.
Seems to me, if you asked the scientists if compression garments have benefits for athletes, they would say, “Kind of. We think.” Not exactly conclusive. But if you want to shell out $80 bucks for a t-shirt or $40 for a pair of socks that may or may not keep you from getting sore the next day, go right ahead. There’s no evidence that compression clothing is harmful, and at least you’ll look fast!