Compression clothing has been all the rage for a while now. As an active runner it is not uncommon for me to see wild colors cover the legs of many on the trails. Surely, compression clothing must improve physical performance! Compression wear has become so popular that Gretchen Reynolds recently wrote this piece in the NY Times.
The most common reason why people believe that compression clothing improves performance is by increasing blood flow to the muscles being compressed. To some that seems intuitively obvious. This study shows that compression wear actually diminishes the blood flow to the thigh after exercise. Most studies performed do not show an improvement in performance while wearing compression clothing. Some research reveals no direct evidence that compression clothing improves performance, but they do note that many of the athletes felt they were exercising more efficiently.
Runners wear compression clothing to improve performance and hopefully minimize the pain of overuse syndromes like shin splints. Calf compression sleeves are amongst the biggest sellers in the market. I must admit I’ve worn a pair or two myself :-)
While the science surrounding an improvement in performance while wearing compression clothing is non-existent or sketchy at best, many research papers do note that athletes likely recover better while wearing compression clothing. We are not sure why compression clothing appears to improve recovery but it may have to do with compressing out the evil humors and chemicals that form after muscle trauma. Proprioception, or the reason why you know where your limbs are at all times is improved when we wear compression clothing. Improvement in proprioception have been proven to increase joint stability, muscle activation and many other processes. So an improvement in proprioception might have a role as well.
The hardest part about studying compression clothing is simply the fact that you can not perform a blinded study. The participants in any research on compression clothing know they are wearing it :-). The placebo effect is enormous in medicine. So the placebo effect likely plays a very significant role in how we feel when we squeeze into our compression wear and head out on the trails.
The best news of all is simply the fact that none of the studies to date have found any downside to wearing compression clothing to improve performance or to improve recovery. So, if you feel that the clothing is a match for you and your training program … keep at it!