During the 2012 World Indoor Athletics Championships, Olympic gold medalist runner Sanya Richards-Ross wore compression sleeves on her arms in hopes of improving her performance. But it’s not only world class athletes who squeeze into compression garments.
Some fitness enthusiasts don compression arm and calf sleeves, tight leggings, and girdle-like shorts that fit from the waist to the knees. Supposedly, these extras, which cost from around $40 to hundreds of dollars, boost blood flow and oxygen to muscles so you can run faster, work out longer, and even recover more quickly from intense exercise.
At least, that’s what many manufacturers of compression garments say. But researchers found these clothes are more hype than hope when it comes to improving athletic performance.
To study the effect compression garments have on running, Abigail Laymon Stickford, PhD, a researcher in Indiana University’s kinesiology department, recruited 16 highly trained distance runners to run for 12 minutes at different speeds while wearing compression calf sleeves (which look like super tight knee socks with the feet cut off). Then the same runners ran again without the compression garments.
During both runs, monitors measured the runners’ gait and how much oxygen they used to see if the compression garments improved the mechanics of running and lowered oxygen consumption (a marker of more efficient athletic performance).
The results showed wearing the compression garments had virtually no effect on the runners. There was zero improvement in stride length or stride frequency. What’s more, four research subjects used more oxygen while wearing the calf sleeves, which showed they were running less efficiently. Four other runners slightly decreased their oxygen usage. However, this was likely a placebo effect — these research participants were convinced in advance the compression wear would improve their racing.
"Overall, with these compressive sleeves and the level of compression that they exert, they don't seem to really do much," Stickford said. "However, there may be a psychological component to compression's effects. Maybe if you have this positive feeling about it and you like them then it may work for you. It is a very individual response."
Running is an aerobic exercise centered around endurance, but exercises comprised of brief, strength-centered actions, like jumping and bodybuilding, are anaerobic. To see if compression garments improved anaerobic exercise performance, Indiana University researchers had 25 volunteer high jumpers wear three different versions of shorts that compressed their thighs — one pair made to fit the individual, one that was a size smaller, and a size larger.
A series of vertical jumps were measured to see if performance changed when the participants wore any version of the compression garments. "We looked at various different angles to see if the variability changed and nothing significant happened," Nathan Eckert, PhD, explained. "This basically states that all three different levels of compression did absolutely nothing for them."
He added that consumers should be wary of manufacturers’ claims that compression garments will improve their exercise abilities. "Consumers need to keep in mind that this is a business, and that they (the manufacturers) are trying to sell you their product," Eckert said.
Researchers have also studied whether compression garments can help reduce muscle soreness after a run or other workout — and found little to no improvement.
Although compression garments may not be a way to zap athletic performance into hyper-drive, that doesn’t mean they don’t have benefits for some health conditions. Doctors have long recommended compression stockings to ease pain and swelling from varicose veins, for example.
Compression stockings can literally be lifesavers for people after surgery and for patients who are not able to be mobile due to an illness, too. These situations increase the risk for blood clots that can move from the legs to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. Wearing compression stockings can prevent this potentially life-threatening problem.
June 02, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN